This is the third and final story of the Mask Sequence, preceded by A Fond Farewell and Revenant. This one won't make much sense without reading the previous two.

This story occasionally gets right inside Apollo's head as he tells his story directly.



Section One

The Ship’s a deep matt black, absorbing rather than reflecting light, as if it’s swallowing everything up into itself.  You could sink right into it.  It’s very beautiful.

A big ship but still a slim black dart, seventeen metres long, sleek and graceful, delta wings sweeping back like a bird of prey, like the raptors that used to fly Caprica's skies.  It’s the embodiment of speed and power made manifest in some unknown metal, designed by some unknown, unknowable, inhuman mind. 

God alone knows what visions that mind saw, what imperatives of function and beauty it worked to.  Even I don’t know that, and if I don’t, no-one human could. But whatever he or she was thinking or dreaming when they designed the ship, they produced something of incredible, deadly loveliness. 

It’s very beautiful.

And it’s mine.

It’s been locked away in this hangar on Beta deck for yahrens now.  More than eight yahrens since I brought it home, almost nine.  Nine yahrens since I returned from the dead.  The only people who come close to it now are Wilker and his techs, trying to prise its secrets from it.  They don’t come often.  Their visits to open it up, look inside the empty cockpit, speculate a little about how it works, are more and more infrequent.  And every time, they have to close it up again and go away, defeated. 

I come, when I can. 

When I know no-one else is here, I come.  I’m not supposed to.  No-one is.  But yahrens ago I persuaded Starbuck to show me how to hack into the Galactica’s main computer banks.  I’m not that hot with computers, but Starbuck surely is.  He only has to look at the computer screen and it pours out its electronic heart to him.  He’d be as mad as fire if he knew that I’d used the tricks he taught me to get hold of the security code for the hangar lock.  It’s one of the problems when you love someone as much as Starbuck loves me.  You want to protect them all the time, even from themselves.  I know. 

I always hack into the computer to make sure that Wilker’s someplace else, then get down here into this neglected corner of Beta deck.  The door to the hangar is in the shadows, so it’s easy to get in without being noticed.  I don’t think that anyone would challenge me, even if I'm seen - hell who'd do that?  I am the Galactica's military commander after all, a full colonel now.  Not many people want to get on the wrong side of a colonel.  Especially the Zombie Colonel.

But I’m always careful not to be seen, not to be noticed.  I don’t want people to know that I come here.  I don’t want to get into endless explanations with Starbuck and my father about why I want to see the Ship, what I do when I get here.  They worry enough as it is.  They wouldn’t understand why I need to be there sometimes. They wouldn’t understand that we need to be alone together, the Black Ship and me. 

I don’t stay long, usually.  Just long enough to make sure it knows I’m still here, that I haven’t forgotten it.  I touch it and lean my forehead against its cold black sides, resting my implant against it.  There's always a surge of welcome from it: cold, remote, passionless.  But it’s a recognition that the Ship offers no-one else, a kind of comfort in our loneliness, our uniqueness. 

But also too, it’s a questioning, a probing.  The Ship misses something that ought to be there with us.  We both know that it’s missing.  But I can’t get to the Mask where it’s locked in the Council Archive.  Not even I can get past Security to reach it.

So all there is, for now, is the Black Ship and me.

If there’s a long interval between my visits, it calls to me.  There's a sudden tug on the little, empty space inside of me that no-one knows of.  But in that little place where once there was a coldness that was part of me, I can hear its impatience, its loneliness.

It will never give up its secrets to Wilker.  Only to me and the Mask. 

Because it belongs to me and the Mask.

And one day, we’ll be united again: me, the Mask and the Black Ship.

All we have to do, is wait.

The gaze that Colonel Apollo turned to the planet that the President was pointing to so enthusiastically was distinctly jaundiced.  He stared at the viewer screen with an indifference that was quite unforced.  He was suspicious of the low ratio of ocean to land, the browny-yellow colour of the land-masses and the surprisingly small polar ice-caps.  The whole place just shrieked desert at him.  Apollo didn’t like deserts.  In his experience they had an irritating tendency to be hot, and he was most definitely a temperate zone kind of person.

"Dyss," Adama said, looking around at the rest of the Council of Twelve, his voice deepening impressively as he spoke.

Apollo hid a grin.  For a man who claimed to be plain and simple and practical, the President possessed a fine sense of the dramatic.  He couldn’t have signalled the importance of this contact more effectively if he’d prefaced his talk with a blaring of ceremonial trumpets.  The whole Council reacted exactly as Adama wanted them to, leaning forward eagerly to look at the image on the viewer. 

Adama set the opening scene: "Our long range patrols first encountered some of the Dyss - the people seem to have the same name as their planet - two sectons ago.  The first contacts were, as you might expect, tentative and cautious, but proved friendly.  The Dyss ships were slow and cumbersome in comparison with our Vipers, and the cautious nature of their approach is probably explained by their realisation that we had the tactical and technological advantage.  They’re very curious about us, but have shown no sign of aggressive intent."

Adama-the-plain-and-simple-and-practical would probably have preferred to have said something along the lines of: We’ve run into this new people who look friendly, and well they might given they’re so far behind us technologically we could steam-roller over ’em without barely breaking into a sweat.  Good opportunity - let’s use it.  The Council, however, preferred its information couched in loftier language.

Apollo swallowed a yawn and went back to staring at the screen.  He was wearing his long hair loose that day and he shook it forward to hide his face, hoping that no-one would notice the expression of boredom.  It wasn’t that the encounter with the Dyss hadn’t intrigued him or that the thought of exploring Dyss-the-planet wasn’t exciting - Apollo hadn’t grown that cynical and still loved exploring the unknown, even when he suspected it would be hot and dry.  It was just that he and Commander Tigh had gone over this with the President several times, rehearsing just how Adama would relate the news to the Council.  He could quote his father’s little speeches verbatim.  The only thing likely to wake him out of his half-stupor would be if Adama unexpectedly changed the script.

He caught the glance Tigh gave him and responded to the half smile with one of his own.  Once, Tigh had sat through Council meetings in a similar daze.  But he’d grown used to it, and as he had said to Apollo, if he’d had to live through it, he didn’t see why Apollo should escape.  As the commander of the military force that protected the remnants of humanity, Apollo was, like Tigh, an ex-officio member of the Council.  It was part of his job to attend Council meetings to give them the benefit of his advice on matters military whenever they felt in need of reassurance.  Tigh knew that.  He’d written Apollo’s job description personally to make sure of it.  He'd made it perfectly clear that he didn’t see any point in having a second in command unless the said second in command was there to share this particularly onerous burden.

Apollo had protested volubly to Adama about being dragged into politics, but despite his son’s complaints and pleas, Adama had been unmoved.  Amused, but unmoved.  He’d been very plain-and-simple-and-practical about that.  Apollo didn’t need the lofty language after all, and put bluntly, as Adama certainly put it, if Apollo wanted the promotion, he had to take all the responsibility that went with it.  So for the last couple of yahrens, not a Council meeting had taken place without the Colonel sitting glumly at the end of the Council table beside Commander Tigh. 

At first, Apollo knew that the Councillors had found his presence a little unnerving, particularly his habit of generally remaining silent and rather grim throughout proceedings (a habit, it has to be said, that Apollo cultivated assiduously as soon as he realised its impact).  He knew he'd changed since the episode almost nine yahrens before when he’d been held by the Enemy.  Nine yahrens ago he might have admitted that he could be a touch volatile.  Now he was always perfectly controlled, never lost his temper, always seemed polite and attentive.  His father said that now there was something remote and forbidding about Apollo.  Impressive, Adama had said, and Apollo had laughed, knowing he was nowhere near as approachable as his father.  He thought that he'd earned the Council's respect, and he believed that they trusted in his judgement, but he was more than content if his political masters considered that there were many reasons for walking around him warily.

Not least because some of the Council - most of them, most of the Fleet, in fact - still believed that Apollo was technically dead.

Which, Apollo would be the first to agree, was probably correct.

Dead or not, he was still there to advise them.  As a softening up exercise before Adama had started in on the issue of Dyss, Apollo had talked to the Council about the warriors.  The fleet had stepped up Viper production since their encounter with the Enemy, converting the Hephaestus into a forge ship, and warrior numbers had increased significantly in the last few yahrens, more than doubling the usual Viper complement on a battlestar as well as forming a regiment of ground troops.  Apollo had found himself running a small army, and had made what he considered to be a simple enough statement about his plans for reorganising the pilots into two full flights each headed by a Strike Leader; and promoting six senior lieutenants to captain below that to head up individual squadrons, three in each flight, and spread some of the strain. 

 To his disgust, he had unwittingly started off the usual drawn-out nit-picking, argument and political jockeying that passed for debate in the august assembly that purported to be his Government.  If any of the councillors had paused in their discussion to analyse his response, they would have thought that he was listening to their views and unsolicited advice with the respectful attention that befitted a young man listening to his elders and betters.  In fact, he was looking from one to the next, trying to decide which one, come the revolution, he’d be pushing out of the airlock first.  It would be a close run thing, he decided, catching the knowing glance his father sent him and they shared a moment’s amusement.

Now, thankfully, the attention was off him and he could return to his silent dozing, and let Adama tell the increasingly excited councillors about this first contact, and the eagerness with which the Dyss had invited a delegation to visit their planet, to discuss both safe passage for the Colonial fleet and possible trading opportunities.

His father was doing this well, as usual.  The President sincerely believed in making as many peaceful contacts as they could in their long journey to Earth, a journey twelve yahrens long now, and Adama was genuinely excited by the prospect of trade with the Dyss.  As much as anything, he was eager to learn if they knew anything of Earth, if that semi-mythical planet was known to them.  He encouraged the Councillors to debate the benefits that this first contact could give them.

Apollo only woke out of his doze when the Council voted unanimously to send him and Councillor Hannath as the Council’s delegates to the Dyss.  He sighed in mild annoyance.  He didn’t mind going on this mission, despite Dyss’ climate.  He did mind having Hannath along.  In his admittedly cynical view, she was one of the more moronic members of the Council, although he acknowledged that any distinctions between Hannath and her fellow politicians were finely judged.  She may be easier to look at than most of the rest of the Council, but that was little compensation for her other shortcomings.

"How delightful!" said Hannath.  "It'll be lovely to get off the ship."

"Yes," said Apollo.  "Lovely."

Adama rose wearily from the President’s chair after closing the meeting and began the process of hastening the Council from its chamber.  There was the social part to get through first, the small talk that knit and broke the shifting, petty alliances that formed the basis for the political system. 

He saw that his son held himself aloof from it all, and smiled slightly to himself.  At least the boy had managed not to yawn in their faces, but it had been a close run thing.  He wondered if Apollo would ever get a taste for politics, but doubted it profoundly.  His son was rather too honest to be attracted to it.  Since they’d both become so closely involved with the Council of Twelve, they’d often wondered how Ila, who’d spent all of her adult life in active politics, had had such a zest for it.  Her husband and son admired her for it greatly, particularly since she had managed to remain untouched by its essential dishonesty. 

He saw old Sire Anton, increasingly frail now, go to talk to Apollo, and relaxed, knowing that Anton was one of the few that Apollo would tolerate with equanimity.  Anton keeping Apollo safely reined in allowed the President to concentrate on other things.  Adama turned his attention to the complaint that Sire Piers was making to him about being called out of turn in the debate, listening patiently and soothing the ruffled little Councillor into quietude again.  Then there was Hannath’s voluble excitement about Dyss to deal with and it was half a centar before the Council room had cleared and he could take some time to talk to his son and Tigh in private.

"At least you don’t snore," he said approvingly to Apollo.  "You came perilously close to falling off your chair at one point."

"I was all attention."

"I know, I know.  Just resting your eyes.  I wish I had your ability to keep my face straight.  I don’t think they realised you were sitting there wondering if you’d get away with spacing them."

Apollo smiled.  "I was thinking about claiming self defence.  They bore me to death.  And the only thing that woke me up was this insane idea that I go down to Dyss.  Do I have to?"


"Well, can’t I go on my own?  Do I have to take that air-head with me?"

"No." Adama was amused now.  "And yes."

Apollo sighed.  "I could whine," he threatened.
"We’ve heard that before, Colonel, and it didn’t bother us then either." Tigh grinned at him.  "Look on this as a developmental opportunity."

"You always say that, sir, before you give me the crap jobs to do."

"One of the privileges of command," Tigh said blandly.  "And, of course, one of the compensations."

"Do you have to do that?" demanded Troy.  "Every time I walk in here I catch you two canoodling."

"Canoodling?" protested the newly-promoted ("I-cannot-believe-it!") Captain Starbuck, pained by the implied criticism.  There were a lot of words that he’d use to describe making love with his lover, but that somehow derogatory, dismissive little term wasn’t one of them.  "Canoodling?"

Apollo disentangled himself from Starbuck a little to look at his son in amusement.  "It’s okay, Starbuck.  It’s normal.  When I was his age, the thought of my parents having sex grossed me out completely too."

"And so it should," Troy muttered.  "At your age!"

Starbuck sputtered helplessly.  The new Captain was bewailing approaching middle age and Troy had just jabbed ruthlessly at a very sore spot, ever since the chance discovery of a grey hair the previous secton.  He turned an anguished face to Apollo.

"No, I haven’t told him," Apollo assured him earnestly.  Apollo had spent a lot of time in earnest reassurance since the hair episode.  "Troy, why aren’t you at Dillon’s?  Then I can kiss my own lover on our own sofa in our own living quarters without fear of censure from a spotty adolescent."

That stung.  "I am not spotty!"

Apollo studied his son’s face.  "Yes you are.  Eat more vegetables and fewer mushies and get yourself off to Dillon’s where you promised you were staying until tomorrow, so that me and Starbuck can canoodle the night away to celebrate his promotion.  And say congratulations."

"Congratulations," Troy said and headed into his bedroom.  He reappeared within centons, a bag of books in his hand.  "I forgot this," he said by way of explanation for his unwanted presence.  He paused to look at the two men on the sofa.  "Did you really get promoted?" he asked Starbuck.

"Yeah.  I’m running Blue squadron in your Uncle Boomer’s flight.  Great, isn't it?" 

"Cool.  About time they recognised your talents."

"Which are almost exclusively horizontal," said the colonel with a glance at the main bedroom.  He had already declared his intention of allowing Starbuck to demonstrate those talents as soon as the irritating adolescent had left them alone.

"That’s what I get for canoodling with my commanding officer," agreed Starbuck, all complacence.  "I knew it’d pay off in the end."

"Disgusting.  You’re both corrupting me." Troy said cheerfully.  He tugged on his father’s long pony tail as he passed - a gesture that could correctly be interpreted as denoting deep filial affection - ruffled Starbuck’s hair annoyingly to pay back the new Captain for every time Starbuck had done that when Troy was still Boxey, and headed for the door.  "See you tomorrow."

"I’m off to Dyss in the morning." Apollo reminded him.  "Stop by for breakfast to say goodbye."

"Okay."  Troy waved carelessly and was gone.

Starbuck combed his hair back into place with his fingers.

"Here, let me do that," Apollo said hastily.  "That’s my job."  He ran his fingers through the mop of blond hair and down the line of Starbuck’s jaw.

"You sure you didn’t tell him?" Starbuck said, enjoying the feeling of those fingers stroking down his throat, but still worrying about that grey hair.  It might have been plucked out from the roots and flushed down the turboflush, but he spent anxious centons in front of the mirror each morning checking for its reappearance,

"Promise.  I haven’t told anyone, Starbuck.  It’s our secret.  Lock the door so he can’t get back in and let’s go to bed."

"You’re an unnatural sort of parent, locking your son out for the night."  Starbuck might sound disapproving, but he was very quick to get to the locking mechanism and return to the sofa to pull Apollo up out of its depths.  "Have I told you recently how much I love you?"

"Not since breakfast, I think." Apollo got both arms around Starbuck’s neck and pulled him in close for a long and mutually arousing kiss.  "Disgraceful, to quote my son.  Whole centars ago."

"Come to bed and let me make up for the neglect," Starbuck urged, pulling his commanding officer towards the bedroom door. 

Once there, he lost very little time in getting Apollo out of uniform.  One of the advantages of Apollo’s promotion to colonel a couple of yahrens before, was that Starbuck had less to get Apollo out of.  No flight jacket and battledress any more, no more pressure suit.  Just the dark blue and silver command uniform.  Not only did it make Apollo look incredibly sexy, it was one hell of a lot easier to peel off to get him down to his skin for a serious demonstration of Starbuck’s talents.

Pushing Apollo backwards onto the wide bed, Starbuck sat astride him for a centon or two, looking down at him, enjoying the preliminary moment, the one in which they were both beginning to get hot.  He loved every inch of the body that was squirming invitingly under his.  He looked it over carefully, from the top of Apollo’s head, down past that beautiful face with the metallic silver implant on the right temple, over the broad chest with the second Enemy implant into the artificial heart that kept Apollo alive, down across the flat stomach to where all heaven lay.

Starbuck would cheerfully admit to being shallow.  His visual inspections rarely got past Apollo’s groin, where he’d be completely distracted by the erect cock, already seeping with pre-cum, that was awaiting his attention.  He knew that Apollo had legs - after all, they were hooked around his waist often enough, or up over his shoulders - it was just that they were slightly less important in the scheme of things than what was between them.  He loved them, you understand, only in a more unexpressed kind of way.  It’s hard to express devotion to a utilitarian pair of limbs, after all.

"Whose turn?" he asked, leaning down for a long kiss.

"I haven’t been keeping score," Apollo said breathlessly and apologetically, writhing a bit as Starbuck regained the vertical.  It hadn’t been Apollo’s mouth that Starbuck had kissed.  "You choose, Starbuck.  Do you want to feel cherished and adored and admired because of your elevation to captain-hood, or has the promotion made you feel all masculine and macho?"

"Both, Apollo, believe me."  Starbuck kissed Apollo’s mouth this time.  "But the night’s young.  We can manage both."

"At our age?"  Apollo grinned up at him, hands busy on the cock that would soon penetrate and love him.

"I took all my vitamins today," Starbuck assured him.  "If we don’t rush things and take a long nap in between, I think we can manage."

"So," said Apollo kissing Starbuck somewhere under one ear.  "Time for you to be cherished and adored.  Are you on for fast or slow?"

"Slow.  Definitely slow."  Starbuck opened his eyes to look into Apollo’s and grinned.  "Maybe I am getting old." he said.  "How come you’ve got so much energy?  I just pounded that pretty, tight, little arse of yours into mush and you’re ready for more?"

"I just want to help you celebrate, that’s all," Apollo said and pouted slightly.  He grinned.  "I’ve had my vitamins too."

He continued smiling into Starbuck’s face, even though moving against his lover’s body caught at the muscles in his buttocks that had taken the undeniable pounding that Starbuck had handed out.  He’d feel it for days, the slight but sweet discomfort of a man who’d been thoroughly and comprehensively loved.  It would be a constant reminder of Starbuck while he was far away on Dyss, a promise of the welcome he’d get when he came home.

"My turn now," he said, and bent his head to kiss one little nipple.

Apollo licked it until the nipple was hard and swollen against his lips, listening to Starbuck’s gasping.  He moved across to the other one, keeping the first nipple taut and excited with his fingers, nibbling and kissing the second until Starbuck was writhing and begging him incoherently for more.  He had to use both hands on the nipples when he started tonguing and kissing over Starbuck’s chest and stomach, loving the body that was writhing slowly against his tongue and mouth.

Whatever his complaints about his age, Starbuck still had a young man’s body, the skin glowing golden, smooth and silky over muscles that were still hard and firm.  Apollo thought it was beautiful, envying the lithe, sensuous lines and the golden haze from the little golden hairs on Starbuck’s chest and the thick flaxen bush between his legs.

When Apollo bent over and took the thick, hard cock into his mouth, Starbuck moaned loudly.

"Lords, that’s nice," he said in a far-away voice.

Apollo smiled up at him.  "You’re so beautiful Starbuck.  Good enough to eat."

That got through the pleasant fog Starbuck was drifting in.

"No teeth!"  Starbuck said in alarm.  "Apollo!  No teeth!"

Apollo laughed and with one wicked little nibble that had Starbuck almost shrieking with ecstasy, he went back to sucking on Starbuck’s erect cock, loving the familiar taste of him, loving the familiar size and shape, remembering how good it had felt when his lover had slid inside him earlier, how quickly pleasure had drowned out the pang of pain.  Starbuck’s hips lifted every time that Apollo’s hot mouth slid down over his shaft and his moans became incoherent.  When the bucking became frantic, Apollo pulled off and blew on Starbuck’s erection, until the moans were moans half of frustration, half of delight.

"Cold," Starbuck managed, wriggling, loving the way the cool breath chilled his most intimate anatomy.  "Nice."

"But you want hot?"

Starbuck nodded dumbly, head bobbing up and down in unconscious imitation of Apollo’s moving up and down his hard cock.  The message was crystal clear:  Oh yes.  Hot and now, Apollo.  Very hot.  Very now.  The yahrens had left him able to read Starbuck like a book.

Of course, an erotic book.

Apollo laughed again.  He was very happy that night and the barriers were down with Starbuck as they never were with anyone else.  He took his hands away from Starbuck’s throbbing brown nipples and dipped his fingers into the tub of lubricant that he’d had the foresight to keep within reach.

"Please suck me, Apollo.  Please."  Starbuck’s hands were tangled in Apollo’s hair, twisting in the long silky blackness.

Apollo reached up to kiss him, then returned to giving Starbuck’s cock the attention they both felt it deserved.  Starbuck’s legs parted to let him in, his hips moving rapidly in time with the mouth and tongue licking and sucking on him.  With one finger, Apollo started teasing, toying with Starbuck’s opening, swirling the finger around the pucker to soften it, then when Starbuck’s hips plunged uncontrollably, he wormed the finger deep inside.  Starbuck cried out with pleasure, pushing up with his hips and then down onto Apollo’s fingers again - there were two now, twisting and scissoring inside Starbuck’s rectum to pleasure and stretch him - impaling himself on Apollo’s hand, moaning and gasping as the long fingers found and massaged his prostate.

After a few centons, Apollo gently turned Starbuck onto his side, lying beside him so that he could continue to glove Starbuck’s cock with his hand, whilst his own hard cock rubbed between the buttocks tucked so neatly inside the curve of his groin.  Pulling back a few centimetres, he got his other hand in to get his fingers up into Starbuck’s rectum once more.

"I want you now, Starbuck," he said gently, mouth moving on the back of Starbuck’s neck in little kisses.  "Ready?"

"Oh God, yes," Starbuck gasped.  

Keeping one hand inside, Apollo used the other to lift Starbuck’s leg and push it forward, getting his knee between Starbuck’s thighs and rolling his lover’s hips slightly to give him a good angle.  Quickly he took his fingers out of Starbuck and smothered his cock with lube, then pressed it gently and firmly against Starbuck’s anus.  His hand smoothed over the skin of Starbuck’s hip and thigh as he pressed slowly forward until he felt himself inside, sliding slowly into his lover’s body until his balls were pressing right up against the soft skin of Starbuck’s arse.

"This what you want, Starbuck?" he asked, pulling back almost to the point of leaving, then pushing forward again slowly, his hand gliding slowly down Starbuck’s cock at the same speed and rhythm, pulling his lover back to meet his forward thrusts, to get himself in as deep as possible. 

Starbuck could only groan with each slow deep thrust, and Apollo laughed, knowing what Starbuck wanted, the long slow fucking that lasted for ever and made him cry for more.  Apollo would keep it gentle and slow, and somehow unbelievably deep and profound, until Starbuck couldn’t bear it any longer and would beg for it to be harder and faster, to make him come, shouting and hot and sweating. 

For a long time they moved together slowly, bodies never quite disconnecting, Apollo licking and kissing Starbuck’s back and shoulders, Starbuck shuddering with each deep thrust.  It was just so good, so good -

"Now, Apollo," Starbuck said, the breath in his chest almost a sob.  "Now."

Apollo’s gentle little kisses became sharp little bites on the back of Starbuck’s neck, and his hand and body moved faster, harder and more powerfully.  Now there was less gentleness, more passion.  Apollo shifted the angle slightly, changing from a gentle stroking against Starbuck’s prostate to an urgent pounding, each beat sending a spasm of pleasure through his cock and balls, adding to the half-painful pleasure that dominated both of them.

It didn’t take long.  Starbuck came, spurting over Apollo’s hand.  But Apollo didn’t stop, his cock still hammering home against Starbuck’s prostate.  Starbuck rolled completely over onto his stomach, raising his arse a little to give Apollo a better angle, and took the battering Apollo was giving him, gasping now with each plunge of Apollo’s cock into his bowels, Apollo’s hands gripping his shoulders painfully. 

Apollo gasped and came, flooding Starbuck, holding him tight and hard, going rigid and still for a centon before he collapsed on Starbuck’s back, still lodged firmly inside him, fighting for breath.  He could feel his own jism seeping down past his cock to slick the skin where he and Starbuck were still joined.  He brought his hand to his mouth and licked Starbuck’s jism off it.  It tasted meaty and salty and undeniably Starbuck-y.  It tasted wonderful.

"Congratulations, Captain," he said softly in Starbuck’s ear, when he could speak again, feeling his lover’s breathing steady and normalise.  He kissed the soft skin behind the ear, licking along the rim.

Starbuck turned his head.  "Stay in me, Apollo.  I love you."

"I know," said Apollo, and wrapped himself as close around Starbuck as he could.  "I know, Starbuck."

Starbuck smiled.  "You think Troy’s ever done it?"  he asked after a few centons.

Apollo’s tongue flickered over the back of Starbuck’s neck.  "Don’t know.  He’s been very coy about that girl in his class, the one he pretended not to notice last parents night. Remember how red he got when she smiled at him?"

"I wonder if he has."

"I suppose he might have."  Apollo was more interested in wondering how long it would be before Starbuck’s vitamins kicked in again, than in his son’s potential love life.  "I hadn’t when I was his age."

"Tell me something I don’t know.  I do remember you at seventeen!  But he’s not quite as shy as his old man.  I was just thinking that when he was being so scornful about us canoodling earlier, the poor little sap hasn’t got the first idea of what he was talking about.  Experience and a certain maturity count for something."

"Yeah," agreed Apollo.  "He’s got it all to come."

A short silence.

"Lucky little bastard," grumbled Starbuck.  "He probably won’t even know what to do with it when it arrives."

"I wish I could come, Apollo," said Starbuck.

He was helping me load up the shuttle that was to take me, Councillor Hannath and two warriors unconvincingly disguised as Council functionaries down to Dyss.  I never felt very comfortable with this kind of mission, but the President and Commander Tigh were convinced I needed more experience in the field of diplomacy. 

Polish up some of your rough edges my father had said dryly after the briefing meeting with the Council when I was dragooned into going.  Fine.  But what if the Dyss objected to being used as emery boards?

"No way," I said.  "If you came, who’d be here to keep an eye on Troy?"

"It’s more to the point about who’ll keep an eye on you."

I grinned at him.  "You don’t trust me?"

"I’d trust you more if you didn’t look almost as young as Troy," he shot back.  "And if you weren’t so damned pretty."


It was true I wasn’t showing my age.  Starbuck and me are about the same age, so far as we can tell given that we don’t know when his birthday actually is.  We were both heading for forty, fast - Starbuck preferred to say late thirties, but believe me they were getting very late.  Positively over-due.  What was galling him was that I didn’t look any older than the day I came back.  But it was ridiculous to suggest that I looked as young as Troy.  My son was only seventeen. 

Starbuck was only griping because he had recently discovered a silver thread in that mop of blond hair and was thoroughly mortified, particularly since despite constant checking, he couldn’t find any on me.  Sworn to secrecy, I’d been soothing his fragile ego about it for sectons now.  He was amusing himself by pretending to be insecure about me, worrying that it looked like I was living with an old man and I’d be off looking for playmates of my own age if he didn’t watch out.  He knew it was nonsense.

"Besides," I added.  "What opportunities could I have to stray even if I wanted to - which I don’t, as you know full well.  We don’t know that they have the same sexuality variations as humans do.  They might not have couples like us."

"Nowhere is there a couple like us," said Starbuck, leering at me and giving me the secret, satisfied little smile that reminded me of the previous night and the feel of him pounding into me, his cock hitting my prostate on each thrust, making me cry out when I came.  Every time I moved I could feel the slight tenderness he’d left me with, as if he was still there in the Starbuck-shaped space he creates in me, pushing up into me, hard and hot.

All these yahrens together, and he still acts like he can’t wait to get inside my shorts.  Not that I’m complaining, you understand.  If there’s anywhere at all that I like Starbuck, it’s inside my shorts.  So to speak.

He has, you’ll notice, corrupted me entirely.  The shy and reserved Apollo left long ago.  Now the barriers I live behind are different, to do with being dead and not quite human anymore.  I let a few people through: Starbuck, of course, so that he can continue the corruption process, family and a few friends that I’ve learned eventually to forgive over the yahrens for their reaction to my return.  Not to forget, entirely, but I can understand their reaction then and the guilt they still feel about it now.  I always did understand.  That didn’t make it any easier to live with.

Well, it doesn’t matter now.  Starbuck was always there.  He promised that he always would be, so I seemed to be stuck with him.  I took him over to a dark and shadowy part of the deck where we were out of the way, and I kissed him senseless to convince him that I wouldn’t stray.  That no-one anywhere, much less among the Dyss, would turn my head.  We both enjoyed convincing him, and he waited on the flightdeck until I took the shuttle out twenty centons later. 

He blew me a kiss as the shuttle lifted off.  He looked so beautiful that the sight of him could still make me catch my breath.

It was the last time I saw him.

The flight of six Dyss ships took over escort duty from the Vipers from Blue squadron just beyond the planet’s atmosphere.  There were a few centons of elaborate courtesies over the comlink -  They’re a ceremonial people, Colonel, Adama had said after the Council briefing, giving his son a doubtful look, as if wondering if sending Apollo to Dyss wasn’t, after all, a diplomatic error. Try and be polite.  - and Apollo, mindful of his promise to his father and on his very best behaviour, let Hannath take care of most of the greetings.  He was mildly impressed by her skilful platitudes.  Maybe she wasn’t going to be too much of a liability, after all.

When their shuttle had been handed over formally to the Dyss escort, Apollo dismissed the Vipers.  He and the rest of the delegation watched the Vipers streak away, feeling an odd mixture of apprehension and excitement.  The shuttle wasn’t unarmed, by any means, although with her gunports closed the Dyss would have no suspicions about her military capability, but she wasn’t exactly as elegantly manoeuvrable as the swift, slim Vipers.  With no Jolly and his squad riding shotgun, they were on their own.

Apollo piloted the shuttle, following the lead Dyss ship at the prescribed distance, the two warriors sitting ready at the sensor and weapons consoles just in case.  They weren’t needed.  The Dyss seemed to be exactly what they appeared: friendly and eager for this contact with a new race.

They came in over the equator, Apollo looking at the landscape below them with gloomy apprehension.  An unmistakable sandstorm that appeared to be the size of a small continent clouded the atmosphere far below them as they curved up towards the northern hemisphere, and he sighed audibly.

"I have a bad feeling about this," he said to no-one in particular.  "Thank God we appear to be heading for something cooler."

"Marginally," said Del from the sensor console.  "That’s interesting, sir.  I’m not picking up any settlements down there at all.  All the settlements are in the temperate zones and up towards the poles."

"That’s not interesting," retorted Apollo.  "That’s sensible."

Del grinned and nodded.  "Desert.  Thousands upon hundreds of thousands of square miles of desert.  I’m with you on that one, Colonel.  Not the place to live.." he broke of and looked closer.  "There are some structures down there though.  A few grouped together, six or seven of them …"

Apollo glanced idly at his own screen.  He didn’t need to double check Del’s readings - he trusted the man too well for that.  It was merely that he could fly shuttles asleep or comatose and most of what he was doing was automatic.  A man had to keep alert somehow, in those circumstances.  Watching the scanner helped.

"They’re several hundred miles to port, Ma’am," Del said helpfully as Hannath craned her neck to see his scanner screen.  "I’ll increase magnification for you."

"I see them."  Hannath nodded.

"Got them too," said Apollo, still only mildly interested.  Then:  "That’s odd.  See their shape?"

"Pyramids?"  Del sounded awed, struck by the coincidence.

Pyramids.  There had been pyramids on Caprica, Apollo’s homeworld, and on most of the other Colony worlds, a legacy of the original world from which all humanity had sprung. 

The legacy of Kobol. 

Apollo had seen the Pyramids on Kobol, too; the first, archetypal Pyramids.  Objects of veneration and almost religious awe as the burial chambers of the Lords of Kobol, they had been unimaginably ancient symbols of something aeons deep in their past, symbols of a power and strength and knowledge that humanity had long forgotten.  If, in fact, humanity had ever known.

But for him, that was secondary.  Even for the historian he would have loved to have been, they had a more personal significance.  To Apollo, the Pyramids of Kobol were simply the place where his wife of only a few centars had been shot down in front of his eyes, while he stood helpless to prevent it.  It was not a memory he dwelt on, even after twelve yahrens.

"Looks like there’s nothing new at all in the universe," Hannath observed.  "There’s something about deserts and pyramids that means they fit together.  Maybe they’re the most ergonomically efficient type of building to put up in those conditions."

Apollo nodded.  "Maybe.  You might well be right.  Every pyramid I was ever in was mercifully cool, no matter what the temperature was outside.  But it’s interesting, all the same, that the same shape appears in a completely different star system."

"I don’t suppose there’s that many variants when you’re building something," said Hannath, mildly.  "I mean, four walls and a roof are pretty standard, and usually only the decoration changes.  The principle remains the same."  She caught Apollo’s glance and smiled.  "I know, Colonel.  Four walls and a point, in this case."

"A little bit interesting then." Apollo conceded.  "Recorded the sensor sequence, Del?"

"Done." Del confirmed.  "Recorded and logged."

"They’re hailing us again, sir," said Micas from her console, head cocked to one side as she listened to the Dyss commander’s voice in her headset.  "Seven centons to touchdown."

And exactly seven centons later, Apollo brought the Galactica’s shuttle down at a spaceport outside what seemed to be the planet’s main city, located near what, on any normal planet, would be a temperate zone.  He looked out through the screens at a world of heat and dust, and thought apprehensively about the equator and its sandstorms. 

"Well," said Hannath from the seat beside him.  "We’re here."

Apollo closed his eyes for a micron, making a determined effort not to make acid remarks about people who state the obvious in bright and ringing tones.  "Yes," he said without betraying his annoyance.  "Del, Micas - checks?"

"Atmosphere checks out at almost Colonial norm sir," said Del promptly.  "About 20% oxygen.  We might find some other gases a touch high - it’ll smell different, that’s for sure."

"I hadn’t noticed that the Galactica was all that fragrant," said the colonel.

"Yeah, but that’s just human bodies fragrant.  There’s a bit more sulphur in the air here: it’ll smell like they’ve been letting off fireworks for several centuries.  Gravity’s about five-sixths normal.  We’ll have to careful until we adjust."

"What does that mean?"  asked Hannath.

"It means you’ll have to move more slowly and carefully than you’re used to," said Apollo.  "Otherwise you’ll compromise the Council’s dignity with a few pratfalls."

Hannath gave him a cool look.

"Temperature’s in the high nineties," said Micas, and grinned when she Apollo's reaction to that news.  "Cheer up, sir.  At least I can work on my tan."

"If I give you any time off for sunbathing," Apollo pointed out.  "Okay, Del.  Open her up." 

He’d been watching the reception committee forming a few metres away from the shuttle, a couple of dozen brightly dressed Dyss, all in flowing robes.  They stood tall and straight at the base of the shuttle’s ramp, dignified and silent.  There was none of the excited chatter that such an encounter would provoke if their positions had been reversed. 

Apollo liked that.  He was a reserved man himself, and he valued quiet and reserve in others: it demanded no more of him in response than he was willing to give.  Starbuck was, of course, the exception.  The one time Starbuck had ever shown a tendency to be quiet and reserved, Apollo had hauled him off to Life Centre for an immediate diagnosis and treatment.  It had turned out to be a new strain of Sagittarian ‘flu.

Although the memory of Starbuck acting as though he were in the last stages of consumption made him smile inwardly, Apollo pushed aside the thought of his lover, and followed Hannath carefully down the ramp.  He concentrated on keeping his footing in the reduced gravity, almost gasping aloud at the heat.  It came down out of a coppery-red sky like a hammer, and he blessed his decision to revert to combat uniform for this mission.  He fumbled for the environmental control in his belt and dropped the temperature of his pressure suit by several degrees, grateful for the mechanism that kept him within a bearable temperature range.

Hannath moved forward carefully and gracefully to meet the Dyss.  They all felt slightly light headed in the reduced gravity, and moved with the conscious carefulness of a drunk who’d had a bottle or two too many. 

"Phew," said Apollo under his breath, having safely navigated the ramp to reach firm ground.  He reached for the environmental control and ratcheted the temperature of his pressure suit down even further.

Hannath bowed to the welcoming committee and for a few centons Apollo forgot his discomfort at the heat as they launched into an elaborate ritual of greeting and introductions.  All the humans were wearing tiny earpieces that translated the Dyss’ speech into Colonial standard.  The Dyss used rather clumsier hand held equivalents, but they worked just as well, so far as Apollo could see.  They had no difficulty in understanding each other’s flowery diplomacy.

The Dyss were recognisably humanoid, having the same sort of anatomical arrangements but for long, delicate-looking six-fingered hands and hair that looked more like the brightly coloured feathers of some exotic bird.  The faces of both sexes were a pronounced oval, longer than most human faces, but they had all the recognisable-human type features.  All the Dyss had bright blue eyes, set deep under jutting brows, probably as protection against the glare, sharp noses, thin lips.  Altogether they gave an impression of height and thinness, almost attenuated.  Apollo put that down to the heat: it had to sweat the excess body fat off anyone.  The females were only slightly less angular than the males, and both sexes towered over their human guests.  But they were otherwise comfortingly familiar.  At least the typical human suspicion of anything different wasn’t being constantly provoked by the Dyss’ appearance.

Wondering if the variation in hair-feather colour was natural or denoted rank or fashion, Apollo took his turn beside Hannath, joining her in murmuring platitudes.  He was mildly surprised when the Dyss turned their attention to him, by their reaction.  Nothing showed on those long faces - not that it would be easy to read their emotions, he thought, warning himself against ascribing human reactions and human emotions to these non-human people - but on each of them, the feathery hair suddenly sprang up in high crests, running from the centre of the forehead over the tops of their heads.  Cold blue eyes looked at him closely, scrutinising his face as if looking for something hidden there.

Keeping his own expression one of polite attention - he wasn't going to take chances on their ability to read humanity being rather better than his to read them - he stared back, wondering what had startled them.

The crest on the leading Dyss lowered slowly.  It was definitely feathers, Apollo decided, wondering if they had some avian ancestor. The nearest Apollo could get to pronouncing her name was Khaeyr, but none of the humans could manage the sort of coughing sound in the middle.  Apollo concluded that their mouths were the wrong shape.

"Colonel Apollo," she said in the same neutral tone that she’d used when greeting Hannath. "You are most welcome here.  We have all too few visitors from other worlds."

"I am very glad to be here," said Apollo, hoping the lie didn’t register on his face.

"If a little overheated," said Khaeyr with what on a human face he'd have taken for a smile.

Apollo smiled back.  "I’ll adjust soon, Lady.  I’m looking forward very much to seeing something of Dyss."

He had already seen something interesting.  A few metres away, in the shade of a building, stood another tall Dyss.  This one was dressed all in black, head to foot, face hidden by a deep cowl, like something a monk might wear.  Like the other Dyss, this one was watching the party of humans closely.

No.  He/she/it was watching him closely.

"I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to walk again," said Micas, sinking into one of the vast divans in the sitting room of the quarters the Dyss had prepared for them.  "Have you ever seen that much food?  If that’s a sample of what we can trade for, then give ‘em anything they ask for."

I nodded, watching Del.  He was looking at the tiny hand held scanner, doing a quick but thorough security sweep.

"Pretty good."  I tried for the same bright tone.  "Did you try some of that purple fruit?  Heavenly."

Micas was doing the visual checks, looking for anything that might be a hidden surveillance camera.

"The best." she agreed.  "And I’d love the recipe for that meaty thing we had.  Do you think they’d give it to me?"

"We could ask," I ignored Councillor Hannath’s surprise at the sudden interest we were showing in cookery.

Del shook his head. "Nothing.  At  least, nothing that registers."

"Then we assume we aren’t bugged."  I was checking the walls myself and nodded at Micas.  "Can’t see anything."

She shook her head and snuggled down into the divan cushions.  Maybe she wasn’t joking about never moving.

"You think they may be listening in?" Hannath asked me in a whisper.

"I would, if I thought I’d learn more about an alien race we’d just contacted.  I’d want to know if they were friend or foe, and I’d do anything to ensure that our people aren’t threatened."

"Even spy?" said Hannath, lip curling.

"Even spy."  

"It’s underhand." 

I didn’t expect even a Council member to be that naïve.  She couldn’t be that naïve.  She had to be putting on an act, hiding her real opinions.

"All diplomacy is underhand, Councillor.  You don’t have any children, do you?  I’d like to see my son grow up.  In the circumstances, anything’s fair."

She sniffed and looked away.  I don’t think she liked me much.

"Impressions?"  I asked. 

We’d been separated at the massive feast our hosts had prepared for us, each of us paired off with a Dyss.  I’d been seated between Khaeyr and an old man whose name I’d never actually caught, but since he’d seemed to concentrate on his plate rather than on my conversation with Khaeyr, I hadn’t needed to know.  But I thought he’d only seemed to be disinterested in me.  I couldn’t see the Dyss being any the less curious about us as I was about them, and I very much doubted that the old man was as frail and harmless as he’d looked.  They’d be keen to find out as much about us as they could, and I was willing to take bets the old man would be able to repeat every word of the conversation between me and Khaeyr.

"Very promising," said Hannath firmly, still disapproving of me.  She spoke a little louder, as if to ensure that if our hosts were listening in, they’d hear nothing to alarm them.  "Providential, don’t you think, Colonel, that we have met such good friends on our journey, who can help us with the next step?"

"Absolutely," I said and sighed slightly.  "What did they talk to you about?"

"Mainly about our journey, what we’ve seen on our way, what people we’d met.  What did you expect?  An inquisition on our numbers and military strength?"

"It’s not the Council, Hannath.  They’re not that unsubtle."  I grinned at her.  She grinned back at me reluctantly.  I wondered if she could be fun when she was provoked into being human rather than a Councillor.

"And you?"  she asked.  She didn’t seem to mind me using her name.

"Pretty much the same."  I shrugged.  "Whatever they’re looking for from us, they’ll work their way up to it.  They’re just laying the groundwork."

"Not everyone wants something, Apollo," she said primly. 

Well, she could believe that of she really wanted to, I suppose.  She was fairly religious, I remembered, a Kobolian like my father.  Like I was supposed to be, although I was definitely lapsed and the church elders had a tendency to suck air in through their teeth and shake their heads sadly whenever they saw me.  Whenever Dad was throwing my shortcomings in my teeth - a reasonably common occurrence - the fact that he came in for a lot of sympathy in Chapel because of my lack of spirituality came pretty high on the list of my failings.  I could never work out whether the agnosticism or the sympathy galled him most, but it gave him something to complain about and kept him happy.  Hannath’s faith could explain her determination to ascribe the best motives to anything and anybody.  Or maybe she was concealing what she really thought.  I could understand that.  I didn’t trust very many people either.  I turned to Del and Micas.


"Not me, sir.  They pretty much asked me the same sort of thing."

"Me too," Micas said. 

"Nothing about what we want from them, about passage through their space, what we might trade.  Just how we got here."  The Dyss were puzzling me.  "Like I said, they not unsubtle and with all due respect to your faith in the goodness of human - Dyssian - nature, Hannath, they’re after something.  They’re just taking their time getting to it."

"They can take as long as they like, as long as they feed me like that every day," said Del, joining Micas on the couch. 

"Fattening," said Micas absently.

"That’s not an idea I want to dwell on."  I caught Hannath’s puzzled glance.  "Didn’t you ever read fairy stories, Hannath?  Lots of them feature witches catching lost children and fattening them for the pot."

"As you said, I don’t have children.  I’d forgotten."

"It’s a few yahrens since Troy demanded a bedtime story," I said, half regretting that Boxey had ever grown up and grown out of his nick-name.  "It’s just that I was wondering where they get the food from.  I would have thought that this planet is a washout, in an agricultural sense, unless you can live on cactus."

Hannath showed a momentary interest.  "Rather than add passing travellers to the pot, they probably just ship food in from other worlds in their space."

"Maybe," I said doubtfully.  "But this is a real issue, Hannath.  If Dyss is fairly sterile -"

"The scans we did as we came in suggested that it is," Del cut in.  "It has been for millennia."

"Exactly.  On planets like this, life is just a struggle for survival.  Building a civilisation like the Dyss have takes massive resources.  Civilisations only tend to grow when you’ve a settled, strong agricultural base that ensures a constant food supply.  If you have to spend your time fighting for your next meal, you don’t have time to invent much beyond the wheel.  Yet they’ve developed into a sophisticated, technological society."

"Still behind us, sir," Del pointed out.

"About where we were a millennium ago, before war with the Cylons forced us to be even more technologically innovative," I agreed.  War was the prime reason behind most technological progress, of course.  You were always looking for something to kill more of the enemy before he could get you.  "But that’s still pretty sophisticated.  They may not have anything to match our Vipers, but they’ve colonised a big area of space.  They’re not grubbing for survival."

"Maybe Dyss wasn’t always desert," said Hannath.  She yawned.

"Probably not, but as Del said, if it ever was green and growing, it was a hell of a long time ago.  Let’s see what we can find out tomorrow.  Anything else tonight?"

"I don’t think so," said Micas, then added, giving me an odd look as if she was half scared of mentioning it, "- except, did you notice, sir?  They seemed pretty interested in you, don’t you think?"

"Good looks and charm," I said, quoting Starbuck’s usual assessment of himself, but I couldn’t stop myself frowning.  "Did you see their reaction when we landed?"

"Unusual." Hannath was alert again.  "They only did that when they greeted you.  None of the rest of us rated that."  She looked pointedly at my forehead.

I touched the implant on my right temple.  It's so much part of me now, that I’d feel odd without its metallic silver pattern above my right eye.  It’s a striking design, looking like a circuit diagram.  That was pretty much what it was, just the outward face of the implant, the circuit board for the Mask to plug into.  The long tendrils grown into my brain were the real implant, the silver mark on the skin only the connector between the implant and the Mask.  The Mask that was still locked in the Council vaults where my father had put it, out of my reach.

"It's the only thing that sets you apart from us, sir," Micas said quietly.

"Not the only thing."

"The only visible thing, Apollo," said Hannath.  "They certainly seemed to react to it.  And react very obviously."

"And raising those feather crests wasn’t necessarily a mark of their delighted affection," I said, still rubbing at the implant.  I might feel odd without it, but I could bear that, if I could only be ordinary and human again.  "We’ll just have to see how interested they are.  And hope we can figure out whether they love it or hate it."

"No-one said anything to you about it, Colonel?" Del asked.

"No.  But Khaeyr’s taking me on a tour of the city tomorrow.  She might take the opportunity to ask.  We’ll have to see.  Anything else?"

"Well, it’s maybe nothing much, but have you noticed that they’ve carefully paired us with one of the opposite sex?"  Del pointed out.  He grinned at me.  "Maybe they hope we’ll be sexually attracted."

I grinned back, realising that it was true.  Khaeyr and Del’s escort were both female, Hannath’s and Micas’ were male.  God alone knew what it meant, but any scrap of information on our hosts could come in useful.

"I’d do a lot for the fleet," said Hannath, with an unexpected flash of humour.  "Sleeping with an alien is not one of them."

"Me neither." I said.  "At least Starbuck can sleep easy."

Councillor Hannath rose from the ornate carved chair as the Dyss negotiators bowed themselves out of the room, bowing politely in return.

"We will see you at dinner," said Khaeyr, and she too left, with her entourage close behind her.  She had taken no overt part in the negotiations, but sat where she could watch Apollo as he and Hannath conducted the polite bargaining that established what each party wanted, without, of course, either side having the bad manners to come out and say what it was they wanted.  Adama had been right when he’d said the Dyss were a ceremonial people.

Apollo and Hannath looked at each other, and relaxed, letting the tiredness show.  Two days of this and they were both feeling the strain.  Apollo got up and headed for a side table, pouring them both a glass of a wine that was golden yellow and smelled of apples.  He was developing quite a taste for it.

"Thank you." Hannath sipped gracefully at the wine, savouring its mellow fruitiness.  "Well?"

"They aren’t asking for much.  Communications and energy conservation technology, information on propulsions systems and fuels -"

"That’s not much?"  She raised an eyebrow.

"No.  Not really.  Not when they know we’re ahead of them in every field.  They haven’t asked us about chemical and industrial processes we could help them with, medical information, sensor and isometrics technology, weapons technology….  They can see for themselves that even our shuttle could fly their fighters into the ground.  They know that we’ve survived  - even thrived - in a long space journey with limited resources.  They ought to be asking us for a lot more.  There’s a whole heap of things they haven’t come up with yet."

"We’ve got outline permission to go through the perimeter of their space, exact route to be negotiated," protested Hannath.  "They promised us star charts and we’ve agreed trading rights in principle."

Apollo nodded.  "You did very well, there."

"Thank you," she said in dulcet tones.

Apollo flushed.  "I’m sorry.  That was conceited and patronising."

"Yes," Hannath agreed.  She gave him a cool look, assessing, as if she were weighing up what she knew of him.  He found it rather galling.  "I know that you don’t have much time for the Council, Colonel, and for what it’s worth I think that’s understandable, given what happened when you came back.  I’d feel the same way.  But I do wish you’d stop tarring us all with the same brush.  In case you hadn’t noticed, I am not a doddery old man with an over inflated sense of my own importance."

She smiled at the disarming grin he gave her. 

"I had noticed.  That you aren’t a doddery old man, I mean." 

He looked at Hannath with rather more interest.  He’d already concluded that he’d been too hasty in his judgement of her.  She’d handled the negotiations with the Dyss superbly, never slipping once, giving away very little.  As they’d agreed in advance, she took the lead, allowing him to sit back and observe, to unobtrusively watch their hosts and try to penetrate the expressions on those long, thin faces, wonder what they meant, what emotions drove them, try to work out what it was they weren’t saying.  Pretty much, he concluded, what Khaeyr was doing, watching him.

What’s more, Hannath was a very attractive woman, only a few yahrens older than he was, one of the youngest Council members in history.  Something of this must have showed in his eyes, because her smile broadened.

"It’s no good you trying to flirt with me, Colonel.  I’m immune."

Apollo laughed at that.  "I never flirt," he said virtuously.  "I was very well brought-up.  But I’ll admit you seem to be smarter than most of the rest of your colleagues put together."

"Only most of them?"  She sounded faintly disappointed.  "And only seem to be?"

"I’d have to say that Sire Anton’s probably the cleverest old villain I’ve ever come across." Apollo said, apologetic.  "And he’s indestructible, physically and politically."

"He’s a very great man," agreed Hannath.  "He hides his intelligence and ruthlessness under that outer impression of frailty.  I use a different method to hide mine, Colonel, but don’t ever underestimate me the way you have until now.  I’ll be blunt, Apollo, since I’ve had two days of diplomacy and the contrast will be refreshing.  You’re going to have to stop being this politically naïve.  You’re going to have to learn to work with the Council, and you’re going to have to work on building up some influence there, if you ever expect to command the Galactica.  Anton and your father won’t last for ever."

The offer was unmistakable, and Apollo took a centon to calculate the risks and benefits of the alliance she was offering.  He might claim he had no taste for politics, but no-one got to be a Colonel and second in command of a Battlestar without knowing how the system worked and using it to advantage.  And when Tigh went, he’d have a fight on his hands with the Council to ensure that he succeeded into command, he knew that.  He’d need people like Hannath then.  He was, he thought wryly, a far more political animal than he liked to admit.

"And in return?"

"Let’s just say that I’d like to develop some expertise in military and logistical matters, Colonel.  As you’ve discovered, I’m not nearly the airhead the rest of the Council thinks I am.  When I’m President I want to understand precisely what it is my power will rest on."  She spoke with supreme confidence, not joking at all.  "And for all that we’re a democracy, Apollo, as long as we’re fugitives and in a military emergency, you and your troopers will always have an inordinate influence on the Council."

"And won’t support one Councillor any more than another," Apollo said flatly.  He was not for sale.

"I’m not that unsubtle, Apollo." Hannath drained her glass.  "And not that stupid.  You’re far too honest for politics, I know that, and far too honest to be bought.  All I’m asking is that you take the time over the next few yahrens to explain to me properly why you take the decisions you do, help me to understand.  Not the facile simple little explanations you give the Council, but the real reasons."  She smiled at him.  "Friends, Apollo, that’s all."

He took the glass from her and went and refilled it, pouring himself another at the same time.  When she took the glass from him, he clinked his glass against hers.

"Friends," he agreed, and they grinned at each other.

"Good.  Now, tell me what our line should be when they do get onto asking us for weapons technology."

"What do you think?" 

"That we should refuse.  There’s something distasteful about trading in arms." 

"Then you’re the one being naïve.  Armaments and military technology are commodities, no more and no less.  If what they offer us is right, then we should trade."  Apollo agreed in principle that arms trading was distasteful, but he had all the soldier’s usual practicality.  "This is a form of war we’re engaged in now, Hannath.  And in all wars, your best tactic is to decide what to fight for and what to discard to meet your ultimate strategy.  Our strategic goals are unopposed passage through their space, because to fight them every inch of the way wastes resources we can’t spare, and trading rights to replenish those resources.  Our best tactic might be to discard weapons technology if it helps us achieve the strategy."

She sighed and nodded reluctantly, then looked up as the door opened and Del and Micas came in.

"And where have you two been?" asked Apollo.

"Well, I think it might have been an art gallery," said Micas, but she sounded uncertain.

"I was there this morning," said Apollo.  "And I wasn’t sure either."

"Nor me,"  Hannath agreed.  "It really points up how different we are to the Dyss, that we don’t share any concept of beauty."

Apollo looked around the ornate sitting room, feeling suddenly trapped, all his senses on the alert.

"Or anything else." he said.

Dressing for yet another formal dinner, I was finding it harder to get into my dress uniform.  Only five days on Dyss and I was already looking a diet and increased exercise in the face when we got home.  They were over-feeding us to a ridiculous extent and seemed genuinely hurt when we turned anything down.  There’s no denying that this was a welcome change after the monotony of our diet on the Galactica, but two feasts a day was getting a little wearing.

It had been an odd few days.  The Dyss interspersed periods of intense negotiation with visits to art galleries and cultural centres.  The Dyss were intent on displaying their culture to us: visual art, architecture, performing arts.  They were a people who took their leisure seriously and showing off their culture to a bunch of visiting aliens was perfectly understandable.  What I couldn’t understand was that each time we’d spilt up and be escorted off separately. 

I had no problem admiring their architecture, which was fascinating and different.  The various ways they could fashion together Hannath’s four walls and a roof were legion, and I was genuinely impressed by the size and scale of the buildings in the city, which was also called Dyss. 

Everything was called Dyss.  And that itself was interesting, displaying either a single-minded devotion to something or someone, or a crushing lack of imagination.

I didn’t think that they lacked imagination, if the things Khaeyr showed me were anything to go by.  I’d seen more performing arts in the last four days than I’d seen on the Galactica in the last four sectars.

I’d sat through something that might have been singing - the tonalities were not geared to the human ear and although the sound was eerily beautiful, paradoxically it was not attractive.  And it’s not that I’m a cultural wilderness (Starbuck’s the culture-less lout in our relationship, thank you.  His idea of culture is ambrosa and a card game, with hot sex with me afterwards to celebrate his winnings or console him for his losses).  Indeed, I love music.  But that performance was beyond me. 

Then Khaeyr took me to see theatre and dancing that were almost as incomprehensible as their music.  It was difficult to keep smiling appreciatively, but it was interesting that we had that much in common with the Dyss, a desire for creativity and beauty that manifested itself in familiar, yet unfamiliar, ways.

Not lack of imagination then.

They never spoke of their religious beliefs - perhaps that was something too precious and sacred to share - but I thought that was behind everything being Dyss. I thought it was single-minded devotion, and that worried me

But for now, all I could do was enjoy the culture trip and watch and wait.  That’s all any of us could do.  So we continued interspersing negotiation with visits, and waited to see what the Dyss were really after.

Comparing notes each evening, we found that we’d all seen the same things, the same theatres and performances, the same opera and dance.  And we all hadn't seen the same things.  We hadn’t seen any indication of manufacturing or industrial processes, any chemical plants, or storage facilities.  Apart from the spaceport and the ships that had escorted us in, we hadn't seem much evidence of advanced technology.  Indeed visitors to Dyss might be excused thinking that lives there were of undiluted leisure and culture, and that no-one had to work. 

Perhaps living on Dyss was like that.  Perhaps we were really seeing all of Dyss, all facets of its society.  Interesting.  Without industry, without agriculture, how did their economy function?

And even more interesting were the people who I saw and that none of the others did.

I’d seen the first one at the spaceport, unobtrusive in the shadows of a building, tall as the other Dyss but dressed in black from head to foot, his or her face hidden beneath a deep cowl.  Then I noticed that there was always one or more of the black dressed Dyss about whenever Khaeyr took me anywhere, watching and silent.  On one occasion, there were five of them, a silent group at the end of a street, heads turned towards us, hidden eyes apparently staring at us. 

It was odd that, apart from the one at the Spaceport, none of the others had seen them.  Odder still, that even the Dyss didn’t seem to see them.  The Dyss walked right round them all the time, never breaking stride, never pausing in their conversation, eyes not some much as flickering towards the guys in black.  It was if they were invisible.  Not literally, but socially.  A blank, an emptiness, a void that the Dyss didn’t wish to acknowledge.  Maybe something that they didn’t dare acknowledge?

"Maybe they’re socially untouchable," Del had suggested, the first time I mentioned them.  "Unclean, or something."

"Or maybe they’re too important, and it would be a social solecism to notice them," Hannath had said.  "The important thing is that it’s the colonel they’re interested in, not the rest of us."

And maybe they were something to do with that single minded devotion that led to everything being called Dyss.  That worried me too.  I don’t like fanatics, and religious fanatics are the worst.

I had been momentarily relieved that I wasn’t hallucinating, that the others had at least seen the one who’d witnessed our arrival even if they’d seen none since.  But Hannath’s remark made me uncomfortable, and I found myself fingering the implant again.  I’d learned to live with it being there, part of me now.  Some days I gave it no more thought than an arm, or a leg, or a tooth.  But the Dyss were giving it some thought.

And maybe that was why they separated us for these little culture trips.  So that the black Dyss could take a look at me, and they didn’t want to be side-tracked into looking at the others.  The next challenge was to work out why.

So that morning, I’d tried to pin Khaeyr down.  I took a leaf out of Hannath’s book and kept my tone bright and cheerful.  I had no real idea how adept they were at reading us and our emotions, but that bright vacuous tone should have been reassuring.  I’d waited until the black Dyss had appeared, two of them this time, standing to one side of the imposing sweep of steps leading up to the huge portico of the building that Khaeyr was intent on showing to me, and I asked her who they were.

That long, unreadable, birdlike face turned in the direction I pointed to.  The two black Dyss simply stood, their faces hidden in the deep cowls and hoods, but presumably looking right back at us, unmoved and unmoveable.  The rest of the Dyss, brightly dressed and chattering to each other animatedly swept up and around the black ones, who stood like monoliths, indifferent to the flow of people around them.

I’d watched her face very carefully.  Not a flicker.  No sign that she even saw the ones I mentioned, and when she turned back to me she ignored my question as fully as the rest of the Dyss ignored their black-dressed compatriots, and plunged straight into a conversation about architecture, and comparative aesthetics.

My father had impressed on me that I had to be polite and diplomatic, so I’d let her quiz me on my emotional response to her buildings, while I pondered my emotional response to being watched by a bunch of Dyss in black whose very existence was denied.  And for the rest of that visit I said nothing else about the black Dyss, but noticed that there were more of them gathering.  By the time we left there were half a dozen on the steps, another two at the entrance to the building across the wide, sun-bright street.

I hadn’t realised that I’d been rubbing at the implant again, until we’d got down that imposing sweep of steps to street level.  For the first time, Khaeyr showed a recognisable emotion.  She’d seemed concerned, but hesitant, taking several attempts to ask me if I was suffering from the heat, if my head ached.  What she said rocked me, although I hope I didn’t show it.

"Our medical scans have confirmed for us the difference between you and your companions," she had said, tone oddly respectful.  "Our medics would be happy to help you adjust better, if you wish it."

They’d been scanning us then.  They had technology enough to detect that Hannath, Del and Micas had organic, muscular hearts that beat, blood that held its haemoglobin in cells, blood that was better able to redistribute heat about the body by increasing the flow to the skin and extremities to help keep cool.  They had technology enough to know that I had none of these things.  And she had deliberately told me that they knew.

Trying to work out what the Dyss meant by anything they said and did, that was what gave me the headache.  It would be all to easy to humanise their responses, to think, well I’d do this or that for this or that reason, so they must feel that too.  Nonsense, of course, to try and give them human motivation, human reasons.  They weren’t human. 

Well, neither was I.  Not any more.  And for some reason that suited them, the Dyss had decided to tell me that they knew it.

Maybe it was hindsight, but I wondered if she was warning me.  Too polite to mention the implant directly, treating it, in fact, by blanking it out in the same way that the Dyss blanked out the black ones, she was warning me.

The trouble was, I was damned if I knew what she was warning me about.

"If we don’t go home soon, I’ll need a complete set of new uniforms," said Micas, when they regained their quarters.  "That was their idea of a light bedtime snack?"

"You were too skinny anyway." Del said lightly.  "A man likes a more curvaceous armful."

"But even my curves are developing curves.  I’m getting so huge you could use me as a crash barrier on Alpha deck."

Micas headed for the side table and lifted up the new bottle of wine that she found there.  Every night when they came back, they found that the Dyss had replenished supplies in their quarters.  In case we get peckish in the night, presumably, Micas had said the first evening, in round-eyed disbelief at the amount of sweet sticky things left for them. 


"Please," said Hannath and Del nodded.  No-one could get enough of the lovely mellow wine, that was refreshing without being so alcoholic that it incapacitated them.

Apollo had dropped into a chair, remote and distant, withdrawn and silent.  He’d been very quiet during dinner, not talking very much even to Khaeyr.

"Colonel?" asked Micas, offering him a glass.

Apollo looked up and focused on her slowly.  "Oh.  Thanks."

"Cheers." Micas drank hers down.  "Lord this is good.  I hope we get plenty and that hydroponics can analyse it enough to produce some of our own."

"Mmn," was all Apollo said.

Hannath watched him for a centon, then when Micas refilled the glasses, she leaned forward and touched his hand.  The little gesture that had Del and Micas looking at each other speculatively.  They hadn’t missed the thawing of relations between the two senior members of the delegation.

"Spit it out, Apollo.  What’s bugging you?"

"Do you have several centars to spare?"  Apollo asked.

"I have all night,"  Hannath said.  "What’s wrong?"

"I suppose that I’m just irritated by the number of questions I’m left with."  Apollo said, and he sounded irritable.  After all, Adama had said nothing about having to be polite and diplomatic to his own kind.  "Why is everything - planet, city, people - all called Dyss?  Where’s their real homeworld, because I’m damn sure it isn’t this one.  Why are they here?  Why’s there no manufacturing and industrial infrastructure?  Why are they being so coy about what they want out of us in this negotiation?  They’re asking for so little…don’t you get the feeling they’re not serious about it, that they’re playing with us?  Who the hell are the black Dyss and why the hell are they watching me?  And why did Khaeyr let me know this morning that they’ve been scanning us and watching us?"

Hannath’s mouth had opened half way through this sudden gush of words, and she kept it open, ready to jump in as soon as Apollo should come to the end of the things he was bothered about.

"Maybe I’ll need all night," she said, but she was frowning.  "Interesting."

"And that’s all we ever say about this place.  That’s interesting, that everything is Dyss.  That’s interesting, that they don’t have any visible technology.  That’s interesting, them having these socially invisible, but omnipresent black Dyss.  That’s interesting."

Del and Micas had both tensed, uneasily. 

"Do you think we’re in danger, sir?" asked Micas, and she had entirely dropped the frivolous manner.  She looked again what she was - a tough, well trained soldier who was on the alert for the enemy, alert for danger.

"I don’t know," Apollo said, and he was fingering the implant again.  "I don’t know.  I’m just not comfortable."

"Is that bothering you?"  asked Hannath.  "The implant?"

"It feels something.  It’s sensitive to something.  Almost like an itch."  Then almost to himself, "It’s never been like this before, not when I was testing the Black Viper, not even with the Ship."

"Well, what does it all mean?" Hannath sounded irritated herself.

"I’m fucked if I know," Apollo said quietly.  "We’re just uncomfortable."

"You’re getting me nervous, sir," said Del.  "I’m going to do another security sweep, just in case."

"You do one every night."  But Micas was already scanning the walls on another visual inspection.

"Practice makes perfect," said Del, and stood up.  He took one step towards the room he’d been sharing with Apollo, to get the hand held scanner, then gasped, swaying unsteadily on his feet.  "Shit!"

"What’s the matter?" demanded Hannath.

"Dizzy," Del said, raising an uncertain, trembling hand to his forehead.  "Dizzy."

He went down like he’d been pole axed, and they all jumped up go to him.

"Del!"  Micas ran towards him, three steps, then with a small scream fell forward onto her face.  She convulsed for a micron, then was very still.

Hannath had fallen to her knees, unable even to stand, leaning heavily on the seat of her chair.  "What’s happening?" she whispered, trying to get her breath.  "Apollo?  Help me -"

Apollo was the only one of them still on his feet.  He had started towards Del when Hannath called him, and he turned towards her.  But the air had become suddenly thick, almost sticky and viscous, hard to breath and he felt almost that he had to push it aside to move.  Every step was slow, painful.  His head buzzed and the irritation in the implant was a stabbing pain now.

It seemed to take centars to reach Hannath.  Her eyes were staring at him, the pupils mere pinpoints  Her mouth worked, but no sound came out.  She looked at him, terrified.

"Drugged."  he said to her in a thick voice.  He placed his hand against her cheek, comforting.

He didn’t know if it reassured her or not, understanding what was happening to them.  He preferred to know, himself.  She was sliding to the floor and he managed to get an arm around her to help her down, to make sure she didn’t hurt herself.

Apollo’s chest was labouring for each breath now, as he straightened up and staggered across to Micas, but his mind was still clear.  He could feel his control over his body slipping away, but he at least knew what was happening to him. 

So this was what Khaeyr was hinting at, warning him about?  Was this why the Dyss had scanned them?  To know what to use to drug them?  But what was the point?  The Dyss knew the Galactica could steam roller right over them, that Adama would act if the delegation came to any harm …

He got to Micas, fell to his knees beside her.  She was unconscious already, and as he looked back to Hannath he saw her eyes close as if she were too tired to keep them open any longer.  The expression of fear and alarm on her face smoothed out.  She looked like she was asleep.

"Shit."  Apollo managed. 

He forced himself to his feet, reached Del.  He, too, was unconscious, body still and relaxed but for a slight, persistent trembling of the fingers. 

It felt like the bones in his legs were melting, that they wouldn’t hold him up any more.  He fell to his knees again, and this time knew he wouldn’t get up again.  He fumbled at his belt for the tiny, hidden distress transmitter.  But his fingers had lost their usual suppleness and dexterity.  They felt thick and clumsy, as if they belonged to someone else, and when he’d finally worked the transmitter free he couldn’t hold it.  It seemed to take an age to fall to the floor and rolled slowly, agonising slowly, out of his reach.  His eyes followed its progress as if watching someone else’s dream, seeing the way it caught the light as it rolled away from him, coming to rest beside a polished black boot.

Dyss.  The room was full of the black-dressed Dyss, moving slowly and silently towards him, stepping over Micas as if she wasn’t there, coming past Hannath’s huddled body.  Coming for him.

"No," he whispered, realising for the first time how frightened he was.  "No."

He reached for the transmitter, but one of the black dressed Dyss caught his hand and held it gently.  Another Dyss took his other hand, and they pulled his arms apart, supporting him, holding him up as if they were crucifying him.

Then they waited. 

Still and silent, they waited.  Apollo, helpless in a body that wouldn’t obey him, could only wait with them.  His head drooped.  It was too much effort to keep looking up, and for an endless time he stared at the carpet, at the muted colours and incomprehensible patterns.  Waiting.

The stillness took on another quality, of strained attention, almost, Apollo thought dreamily, of veneration.  A gloved hand cupped his chin, raised his face. 

"They will die, Lord," someone said.  Khaeyr?  Was it Khaeyr?

His earpiece translator was still working then, but the voice was a long way away.

The answering voice was harsh, distorted, an inhuman, grating whisper echoing around inside Apollo’s head.  "Yes," it said with profound indifference.  "They will.  He will not.  Lift him up onto the divan, and leave us, all of you.  Go and prepare their ship.  We must send them back."

"I don’t understand why," the first voice said, faintly questioning.

"You need only to obey."

"Lord."  It was acquiescence, deep respect.

Apollo was still trying to focus on the owner of the hand holding his face, when the hand was withdrawn and his head fell forward again helplessly.  He could feel them lift him up, at least three of them, and carry him over to the divan where Micas had been sitting.  A pillow under his head, the softness of the cushions cradling him…he closed his eyes for a micron.  It would be so easy to sleep, so easy.


This time the voice was gentle, the harshness gone, a masculine voice, deep and grave.  A voice speaking a familiar language.  Not Colonial Standard although it was something familiar.  Familiar, but archaic, the formally structured cadences reminding him of his childhood and the long ceremonial services in Chapel, and of long afternoons sitting sleepily beside his mother and siblings, keeping Zac occupied and quiet.  Kobolian?  Old High Caprican, maybe?  He gave up worrying about it, drifting away.

"We know you can hear us.  Look at us."

Apollo forced his eyes open, but everything was greying, fading.  He couldn’t see much beyond a silhouette, dark against the greyness, the head misshapen.

"Good." the voice said, still gentle.  "Listen to us.  This is necessary.  There’s a certain amount of suffering involved in this, but you will not die.  The People do not die, Apollo, as humans or the Dyss do.  You’ll understand in time.  When you’re ready, come and find us.  You know where we’re waiting."

A mouth on his, gentle fingers caressingly smoothing his lips, a hot tongue tracing the shape of his mouth.

"Come soon."

Apollo frowned, stared up at the shape in the greyness.  With a huge effort he reached out, his hand touching the man’s forehead.  Then the room was filled with something that he couldn’t ever describe afterwards, not even to himself when he understood what had happened on Dyss, when he understood the trap that had been set there to ensnare him.  The closest he ever got to describing it to those who saw differently than he did, was some kind of soundless explosion.  There was a blinding flare of a light that was not light at all, but the essence of darkness, and a roar of energy that couldn’t be seen in his new darkness, or heard in the profound silence, but which made him feel as if the whole world had blown up in his face.

But even as his world was destroyed, he realised what it was his hand was touching.  There was the stab of recognition in his implant, a cold memory.

A Mask.


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