Section Two

 

"I understand that they’re on their way home," said Adama, joining Tigh on the bridge of the Galactica.

"Mr President," Tigh said with gentle malice.  "What a surprise to see you here."

"And that’s enough of that." Adama looked around the bridge with a certain regret.  "I may have given up command of this ship, Tigh, but not of the Fleet.  Where else should I be but here, occasionally?"

"Daily." Tigh sighed.  "I could set the bridge chronometer by you, Adama."

"I’ll get over it in time," promised Adama.

"It’s been two yahrens. You don’t show much sign of getting over it yet."

"Maybe you never do," Adama sighed.  "But you can’t side-track me like this, Tigh.  Are they on their way back?"

"They are.  The shuttle left orbit four centars ago.  They’re still in hyperspace, but Silver Spar’s out there waiting to pick them up when they leave Dyss territory and come back into normal space.  I can’t say I’ll be sorry to have Apollo back.  Running this ship is hard enough.  Running it with my second-in-command away having fun with aliens and not around to take all the crap jobs off my hands, is no fun at all."

Adama grinned, and looked around the bridge again.  "I’ll be glad when he’s back, too.  Troy decided to stay with me last night to get away from Starbuck’s pyramid game - it seems Starbuck’s making the most of Apollo not being there to disapprove.  I’d forgotten how wearing a few centars of undiluted teenager can be."

"Thank God I never had to find out."

"He’s a good child, really."  Adama’s expression softened and he smiled the slightly foolish smile of the fond grandfather.  "He’s good with Athena’s two."

"And thank God ten times over that I never had to find out with more than one of ‘em." Tigh turned away as Omega approached him.  "Yes, Captain?"

"We seem to have a communication problem with the shuttle, sir," said Omega carefully, one eye on Adama.  "The shuttle’s back in normal space, but isn’t responding to Silver Spar’s hails."

"You've tried from the comms desk here?"

Omega shook his head.  "No response, sir.  Isometrics has scanned the ship, but can’t detect any communicator faults."

Tigh glanced at Adama.  "Life signs?"

"Four, sir.  That’s all right.  But for some reason they’re not responding."

"Course?"

"Direct course for the Fleet, sir.  They’ll be here in about half a centar."

"Keep trying," said Tigh.  "And keep scanning.  See if Isometrics can come up with some reason for this.  Get them to run a full diagnostic."

Omega nodded and moved away.

"I don’t like this," said Adama.  "There’s no reason why Apollo would keep comms silence, especially when Silver Spar hailed him."

"We won’t know until they get here," said Tigh, pragmatic.  "All we can do is wait."

"Very comforting." Adama growled, and spent the next twenty centons prowling around the bridge making everyone feel uncomfortable. 

"Nothing," Omega reported eventually.  "We’ve run full diagnostics twice.  The shuttle systems are in perfect working order."

"Medical?" asked Tigh.

"Medical scans indicate four life forms.  Unmistakably the shuttle team." 

"Sure?" demanded Adama.

Omega looked uneasily at him. "The colonel and three.. er.. ordinary humans, sir.  The medical signatures are quite clear."

Adama nodded and turned away again.  "Then what is it?"  he said, mostly to himself.

"They should be moving into approach vector," said Tigh, close behind him.  "But they’re not making any of the right course corrections."  He watched the scanner for a few centons more.  "Right, Omega.  Disable her and bring her in from here.  We know that something’s wrong.  There’s no point in just sitting here watching it."

"Disable signal sent, sir."  A pause.  "Shuttle successfully disabled.  We’ll bring her in on Alpha deck.  Touchdown in six centons."

Adama was already on his way.







"The last time we stood here like this, it was the Black Ship," said Starbuck.

He hadn’t spoken for several centons, not since the shuttle had floated slowly onto the deck, brought in by remote control by Omega on the bridge.  Deckhands, all in contamination gear, had spent those centons scanning the ship, checking it for external damage.

Adama stood beside him, one comforting hand on the younger man’s shoulder.  When Starbuck spoke, he tried to think back, but the moment they’d opened the Black Ship and taken Apollo out of it was a memory of anguish and heartache and pain.  The details he remembered were of the emaciated, naked body of his son, dripping with slime and with the Mask sitting malevolently over his face.  He knew Starbuck had been there, but he had to concentrate hard to remember anything of what they’d said to each other, or of what he’d done.  In fact, he had stood beside Starbuck in just this way, his hand on Starbuck’s shoulder. 

It hadn’t been able to give much comfort then.  It gave little now.

"I couldn’t bear it," said Starbuck.

Adama let out his breath in a long deep sigh.  "I’ve spent more than eight yahrens trying to make up to him for what happened.  It’s just starting to come right, Starbuck.  Sometimes we talk and I think he’s really forgiven me, sometimes that he’s even forgotten about it.  Sometimes I have my son back.  I couldn’t bear it, either.  I couldn’t bear it just as I’m getting him back."

"It won’t be long," said Tigh, from behind them.  "The decontamination team’s here."

The deckhands had fixed a mobile decontamination unit to the shuttle door, sealed with an airlock to contain any biological hazard within the shuttle, forming an extra barrier to protect the Galactica and her crew.  The medical team, kitted out with full environmental suits and breathing apparatus were waddling across the deck towards the airlock.

Adama didn’t turn his gaze from the shuttle.  "What aren’t you telling me?"  he asked quietly.

"That the medical scans show they’re all still breathing, Adama," Tigh said, equally quiet.  "But they’re all unconscious."

"I’d assumed as much," Adama looked briefly at Starbuck, then stared at the shuttle again.

"He’s alive, anyway," said Starbuck said, but there was real dread in his voice. 

Adama watched as Cassie tucked her hair into the helmet of her environmental suit and closed down the faceplate.  A tech checked the seals of her suit and nodded, gave her the thumbs up.  She turned to look at Adama, Tigh and Starbuck where they stood to one side of the deck, and half raised a hand in salute, before leading her team of medtechs into the decontamination chamber.  As soon as the airlock closed behind them, they disappeared into the shuttle.

Tigh handed Adama and Starbuck headsets.  "I’ve got this on a closed loop," he said.  "I didn’t want what Cassiopeia finds to be broadcast all over the fleet until we’ve had time to assess what’s happened."






Cassie worked her way through the small passenger compartment to the front of the shuttle.  The shuttle team were all exactly where she’d expect: Apollo at the controls, Del and Micas at their stations, Hannath in the seat immediately behind Apollo’s.  But they were all slumped in their seats, heads hanging, held in place only by their safety harnesses.

"Shuttle environment all normal," she said quietly into the microphone built into her suit, watching the readout from a scanner held by her chief medtech,  "Temperature, air supply... nothing at all abnormal.  No sign of hull breach or damage."

There was a long pause while she moved from one to the next, checking each in turn.  Each time she raised their heads to look into blank, relaxed faces, closed eyes, watched the slow even breathing. 

Bill, the chief medtech, touched her arm as she turned away from Apollo to Micas.  Through the clear visor, he looked relieved.  He put down the environmental scanner and reached for a smaller medical sensor kit. 

"Biological tests completed, Cass.  No known biological hazard detected.  No microbial or viral contamination. The scanner’s clean."

"Did you get that, Commander?" asked Cassie, gently tilting back Micas’s head.

Tigh's voice was tinny over the comm-link.  "Yes.  Thank you, Doctor."

"This isn’t the place for anything extensive but I’ve examined each of them.  None have any visible sign of injury, no sign of any physical distress."  She gently thumbed back Micas’s eyelids.  "Pupils dilated.  Blood pressure normal; body temperature normal; heart-rate normal; respiration at around fifteen a centon.  Nothing unusual.  They look as if they’re asleep."

Bill tapped her on the shoulder again and drew her attention to the medical monitor in his hand.  For a centon she looked at the display screen as he pointed the monitor at Micas.  Cassie frowned, and glanced at the man in consternation.  She pressed the microphone button with her chin, cutting off the communications link with the outside.

"This can’t be right, Bill.  Are you sure there’s nothing wrong with the scanner?"

"It’s fine.  I tested it twice.  All of them are flat-lined..."

"All of them?" she said sharply, protesting.

"Except the colonel."  Bill touched controls, showed her other readouts.  "Councillor Hannath,  Sergeant Del.  You can see it.  Or rather you can’t.  Nothing."

"I don’t believe it.  I’ve never seen anything like it!"  Cassie took the monitor from him, still looking at it intently, not wanting to believe the data it was showing.  "Apollo?"

"Different, but then it always is with him.  I don’t think it’s normal - but then, I don’t really know what constitutes normal for him." 

Cassie took the monitor to the pilot’s station, pointed it at Apollo.  "Well, it doesn’t look right.  Depressed alpha wave activity - pretty much what I’d expect if he were deeply unconscious.  But the others - "

"Doctor?" Tigh said impatiently in her earpiece.

She grimaced at Bill and opened the com-link again.  "They’re all unconscious, Commander.  I can’t say why, not without extensive tests.  I need to get them to Life Centre."

She waited.

"I need some assessment of the risks," said Tigh

"There are no obvious biological hazards, Commander.  We’ve brought contamination pods with us.  Once sealed into the pods and taken through the decon unit, we can bring them in with minimal risk to the Galactica."

"How minimal?"

"I’m not a mathematician to calculate the odds, Commander," Cassie said, with more than a hint of asperity.  "If they’ve been infected with something that our scanners can’t detect, if they’ve brought it back with them, it’ll be in the pods with them.  The portable unit will decontaminate the outer surface of the pods, and us.  The chance of any microbial or viral agent surviving that is minuscule, close to non-existent."

"Very well, Doctor.  You’ll keep them contained in Life Centre?"

"In the Isolation chamber," agreed Cassie.  "We’re on our way out.  Ten centons."

She switched off the link again.

"You didn’t tell him," observed Bill, signalling the remaining two medtechs to start bringing in the containment pods.

"Tell him what?"  she countered.  "I don’t know what to tell him.  And until we know a little more about what we have here, I’m not going to tell him.  I want those tests done and redone until we’re sure."

Bill nodded.  "I’m not sure I want to know," he said, and went to help the other medtechs lift Hannath out of her seat and get her into the first pod. 

Cassie watched gloomily, trying desperately to work out what the hell was going on, what could have done this.  She glanced at Apollo, still and silent beside her, wondering how he’d escaped the dreadful, appalling fate of the others, wondering what had caused this, what had happened to them.  She turned her attention back to Bill, as he settled Hannath into the pod, handling her as gently as he could, as if afraid he’d inadvertently wake her.

She wouldn’t wake.  Nor would Micas or Del.  Not ever.  The brain-dead never wake.







"Why has Cassie asked Salik over, do you think?" Starbuck asked, his tone resentful and untrusting as he watched the elderly medic confer with Cassie inside the isolation chamber.

"He’s a good doctor, Starbuck," said Adama quietly.

Starbuck snorted.  "Tell that to Apollo."

"He knows more than anyone about the changes that were made to Apollo."  Adama was patient not allowing Starbuck’s fear to amplify his own, keeping himself  contained and quiet.  That way he could cope.  The only way he could cope.

"So he should,"  Troy was as unforgiving as Starbuck.  "He experimented on Dad long enough." 

Adama sighed, and said nothing.  Another long uneasy silence fell between them.  They’d waited for what seemed several lifetimes.  All they had to sustain them was Cassie’s assurance that Apollo was alive.  Unconscious, but alive.

They watched dully as a nurse crossed to one of the airlocks and climbed in, settling herself into the environmental suit inside.  The airlock door closed, and she moved into the room.  The long oval tube to which the suit was attached concertina-ed behind her, connecting her to the airlock, stretched out to its fullest extent as she moved from pod to pod, noting readings on a scanner she’d taken from a trolley inside.  Another medtech monitored the readouts at the computer station in the main Life Centre area.

"I wish I knew what was going on," said Troy, sounding very young.  "Do you think Dad’ll be okay?"

"Dear God, I hope so," breathed Starbuck. 

Adama glanced at him, anxious.  Starbuck had almost lost it when he’d thought Apollo dead almost nine yahrens before, only the unremitting demands of protecting the fleet from constant Enemy attack giving him something to cling to, to keep himself sane and functional.  Adama did not want to put Starbuck to the test like that again.

Cassie and Salik backed towards their airlocks, conference over. 

"I think we’re about to find out," said Adama.







Cassie inclined her head graciously at the Council and slid into the seat that Sire Anton politely indicated.

"Thank you for coming, Doctor," said Adama quietly from the President’s chair.  "I’d like you to give the Council a report on what you’ve learned so far."

His hands, long and thin like Apollo’s, were folded on the table in front of him, the only way he could disguise the trembling.  He looked steadily at Cassie, trying not let anything of what he felt surface, showing her the same composure with which he’d met the solicitous enquiries from the Council.  He couldn’t afford to show anything they might construe as weakness.  He had to remain Adama, remote and dignified, when what he wanted to be was a heartbroken father railing at what had happened to his son. 

"Doctor Salik, as you know, has come out of retirement to help me.  We’ve confirmed our first assessment that it’s not a biological hazard.  It’s non-microbial, non-viral.  But it is some sort of systemic poison that’s attacked the nervous system."

"Deliberately administered?" asked Sire Solon.

"I can’t tell.  None of them show any sign of a struggle - there’s no puncture wounds, for example - so the poison was ingested through something they ate or drank.  There’s no way to tell if this was deliberate, a tragic accident or something as simple as an allergic reaction to some new substance."

"Food poisoning would show other signs, wouldn’t it?"  asked Anton.  "Physical evidence, I mean."

Cassie nodded.  "No vomiting, no diarrhoea in this case.  There are no outward physical symptoms at all.  Whatever it was, they just slipped away."

"Have we heard from the Dyss?"  Siress Tinia was normally a direct, energetic woman.  Today she looked tired and muted.

"They called several centars ago," said Tigh.  "The Lady Khaeyr - who extended the invitation to us, as you’ll recall - called as a matter of courtesy, to thank us for sending our delegation and to say polite things about how much the Dyss had enjoyed the visit.  She seemed devastated when we told her what had happened."

"Seemed?  You don’t trust her?" said Piers sharply.

"I meant only that she’s not human.  If she had been, I’d have said she was devastated, but I can only assume that she’d share that very human reaction."  Tigh shrugged.  "How can I tell?  She promised full co-operation and assistance, and has put the Dyss scientists at our disposal trying to trace the cause."

"It doesn’t affect the agreement that Hannath negotiated?" Piers asked.  "They’ll still allow us passage through their space?"

Adama gave him a fleeting, unfriendly look.  There was something unseemly about the way that Piers could so easily brush aside human tragedy. "The agreement is unaffected," he said coldly.  "There is no evidence to suspect the Dyss of foul play."

"Of course not."  Piers agreed hastily.

"We will not move into Dyss space immediately, however."  Adama was remote again.  "Not until we have a better idea of what caused this and what the risks might be."

The Council nodded approvingly.  They were all for minimising risks, especially to themselves.

Sire Anton turned his wise, wicked eyes to Cassie.  "And our people, Doctor?  What’s the prognosis?"

"We’ll keep them in the Isolation chamber for another twenty-five centars," Cassie said.  "That’s usual practice even though I’m certain there’s no hazard.  But there are some painful decisions to be made, Councillor."  She took a deep breath, looked around at them.  "When we first scanned the shuttle, the sensor data showed they were all deeply unconscious.  They all showed reasonably strong life signs: respiration, heart rate and so on.  Since we recovered them, they’ve all remained physically stable.  They’re living and breathing, Sire Anton, but –" She paused, then said slowly, " - but on every test I can conduct. Siress Hannath and Sergeants Micas and Del are technically dead.  There is no brain activity."

There was a micron of stunned silence, then chorus of gasps and exclamations, protests.

"None at all?" Sire Tomas asked, white-faced.

Cassie shook her head.  "No.  There’s no hope of recovery.  They’re husks, that’s all.  Everything - intellect, personality, everything - all gone.  Only autonomic functions are left."

"Good God!" said Solon, his expression blank with shock.

"You haven’t mentioned the Colonel," said Anton, with an apologetic look at Adama. 

Cassie sighed.  "Colonel Apollo’s not in the same vegetative state as the others.  Whatever caused this, the physiological changes made to him by the Enemy seem to have protected him from the worst effects.  He’s not unaffected, but there’s considerable brain activity.  I don’t know when he’ll wake, or what the long term effects may be, but he’s not brain-dead."

"He’s in a coma," said Adama harshly, and none of them could look at him.

For a centon he thought back to previous day, to Cassie gently breaking the news to them.  Hannath, Micas and Del dead by any human measure, Apollo in a coma with no indication of how badly he was affected, how long it might be before he recovered consciousness.  No indication if he would ever recover consciousness.

Troy, still too young to hide his reactions, had cried like a child; loud, helpless sobbing that nothing and nobody could comfort.  Starbuck might have been older than the boy, but there wasn’t much to choose between him and Troy in the extremity of their grief and shock.  Starbuck’s face had been buried in his hands, hidden, but everything about him shrieked of grief and pain.  Tears had forced their way through his fingers.

And Adama himself standing still and quiet, his head slightly bent, concentrating carefully on Cassie’s words, concentrating to prevent himself from flying apart the way Troy and Starbuck were flying apart.  He almost envied their ability to show what they felt.  Half the problems between him and his son came from the difficulty Adama had in showing what he felt, the difficulty he had in breaking through the composure that surrounded him like armour.  He didn’t feel any the less.  He just didn’t show it.

"The prognosis is uncertain," Cassie said now, and her quiet, sympathetic voice brought him back to the present.  "But I need the Council’s authorisation with regard to the others."

"Ah yes," Anton said sadly, and looked down at his papers, stacked neatly on the table in front of him.  "I understand."

"There is no hope for them.  I need your authorisation for euthanasia."  Cassie said it firmly enough, but she was very pale.  It would be the first time she had ever had to do it, Adama knew.  "The records show that none of their families survived the Destruction.  In the circumstances, the responsibility falls to you."

"What’s the alternative?" asked Solon.

"They could linger for yahrens.  But I assure you, their condition will never change.  Dr Salik concurs."

"Do it," said Anton, and for once his habitual suavity had deserted him, and he sounded as harsh as a crow.  "It’s the kindest thing.  We’ll give you a formal Council order, Doctor.  But do it."

There was a murmur of shocked agreement.

"Thank you," said Cassie.

"May God have mercy on them," the old man said softly.

"And on me," said Cassie, and her blue eyes were wet with sudden tears.







"Thanks for agreeing to help, Boomer," said Cassie as they left the Life Centre together.

"Anything, Cass.  Anything at all.  Even if he wasn’t one of my best friends, he’s Athena’s brother."  Boomer sighed heavily.  "What a fucking mess.  It’s the last thing she needs at the moment."

"She’s fine, Boomer," Cassie assured him.  "She’s still got two sectars to go before the baby’s born, and they’re both doing well despite the shock."

"That’s what she says.  She says I worry too much." 

Cassie managed a brief smile.  "You worried your way through the first two as well.  You should be used to it by now."  She thought to the task ahead.  "What have they been told?"

"That Apollo’s still alive, still unconscious, and that you want to talk to them."

"Will they help?"

"I hope so.  I think so.  Why shouldn’t they?"

"I haven’t forgotten what happened nine yahrens ago," said Cassie dryly.

"I didn’t say they’d all help, but most of them will.  "Will it work, Cass?"

"We can only hope," Cassie said gently, suddenly remembering that Boomer’s reaction to Apollo’s return hadn’t been the most welcoming.  It had taken a couple of yahrens before he and Apollo were anything like on the old footing.  His marriage to Athena had helped, but she suspected that Boomer still occasionally felt guilty and uncomfortable.

"Yeah,"  was all Boomer said, and followed her into the OC. 

All of the officers were gathered there, waiting.  She took a deep breath, and walked into a silence.  They’d evidently been on the watch for her.

"Well, Cassie?" it was the ground force commander, Captain Trent.  He wasn’t prepared to wait to be told.  "How is he?"

Cassie summoned up a faint smile.  "Still with us, Trent." 

"You can’t kill what’s already dead," remarked Lieutenant Drake.

"Shut up, Drake," said Boomer.

Trent ignored Drake completely.  "But?"

Cassie sighed.  "But it’s left him in a coma, Trent."

The Galactica’s rumour machine had been working overtime since the shuttle had been brought in.  Cassie realised that they’d been expecting something like this.  Not one of the faces turned to her looked shocked, although most showed concern. 

"Shit," said Greenbean. 

"Starbuck?"  asked Giles. 

Cassie shook her head.  "He’s hanging in there, but it’s hard for him." 

"I bet," Cree said sympathetically.

"Do you know what caused it, what killed the others?" asked Trent.  Del and Micas had both been under his command, part of the ground-force regiment, as Cassie knew.  She knew him to be a conscientious man.  He must feel all a commander’s helpless responsibility when something went wrong.

Cassie rubbed wearily at her eyes, feeling the grittiness that came from too little sleep.  "We know that it was a systemic poison, ingested in their food.  The Dyss scientists have been working with us to isolate it.  It looks like it may have been some fruit that’s full of organic compounds we haven’t come across before, that they had some kind of allergy response."

"Their scanners didn’t pick it up?" Sheba sounded disbelieving, knowing that it was standard practice in first contact situations to scan, discreetly, anything they were offered to eat or drink, precisely to avoid what had happened on Dyss.

"Apparently not," was all Cassie would commit herself to.

"Maybe the Dyss did it deliberately," Cree said, voicing the suspicions that had been rife in the OC - in the fleet - for days.

"They had no reason to harm our delegation," said Boomer, patiently.  "And every reason to know that if they did, then we could damage them severely in return."

"They’ve been extremely helpful in isolating possible causes and suggesting remedies," said Cassie.  "It looks like an accident."

"An accident that killed a councillor and two warriors, and left Apollo in a coma," Giles observed.  "Convenient."

Cassie shrugged.  That wasn’t a concern.  All her energies were focused on Apollo and getting him - and Starbuck - through this.

"What does it mean, exactly, him being in a coma?" Jolly frowned. "Doesn’t it normally mean some brain damage?"

"Sometimes," Cassie conceded.  "Not always. It’s hard to tell with Apollo because of the changes that were made to him.  We’ll have to wait until he wakes up. "

"And how long will that be?" asked Sheba.

"Your guess is as good as mine.  That’s why I’m here."  Cassie looked round at them and sought for a simple explanation.  "What you need to understand is that there’s several levels of coma.  We’ve spent the last two days doing tests and it looks like Apollo’s not in so deep as we first thought.  He’s responding, however faintly, to external stimuli.  He’s responding to pain and temperature changes, and the monitors show brain cortex activity.  That means it’s worthwhile trying to increase the stimulation and try and wake him up."  She held out her left hand, palm flat.  "If you think of this as the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, Apollo’s just under the surface.  Just here."  She tapped her right hand on the underside of the outstretched left palm.   "We just need to catch his attention.  Hook him - like fishing - and pull him back.  And that’s where I need your help."

Drake merely shrugged and looked away, but he was in the minority.

"Anything we can do," said Sheba, to a general chorus of agreement.  "Anything at all."

Cassie smiled at them thankfully.  "Good.  What I want is your time.  A permanent rota, round the clock.  Maybe a half centar each?  And all I want you to do is talk to Apollo.  Tell him what’s happening in the fleet or here in the OC. or read him books… for all I care, you can recite blank verse or tell him dirty stories.  It may take a little while, but I think we can get him back."

"I’m here to get the rota organised," said Boomer.  "If you’re all willing."

"We’re on,"  Bojay, Boomer’s opposite number, the Beta Strike leader, hadn’t always been one of Apollo’s most uncritical fans, but the marriage he’d always wanted to Sheba had lessened his jealousy.

Trent stood up.  "I’ll come back with you now, Cassie, and get started.  Of course, nearly all the dirty stories I know are the ones Apollo told me, but I guess he can always put me right if I get them wrong."







After Apollo had returned from the Enemy, it had taken Starbuck a very long time to feel secure again.  For yahrens he’d wake in the night, suddenly deeply afraid, staring into the darkness with his heart thudding and his guts twisting, cold and clammy with sweat, smelling his own fear.  Usually it took him a centon or two to realise who he was and where he was, and remember what had frightened him.  And what frightened him that it was all a dream and one day he’d wake up; that in reality Apollo was radioactive dust parsecs behind them, irretrievably dead, and that he, Starbuck, was permanently maimed by the loss, permanently bleeding, permanently alone.

For yahrens he’d had to force himself to make sure, to turn on the lights, low and dim, and reassure himself that it wasn't a dream, that it really was Apollo sleeping beside him, warm and breathing, the long naked body pressed up against him.  And for most of the night he’d watch Apollo sleep, watching the expression on Apollo’s face change as the night wore on, watching him dream.  He’d watch for centars, half afraid that it was a dream of his own that Apollo was there, and if he put out the lights that Apollo would dissolve away again, and he’d wake in the morning alone and lost and mourning.

Often, the faint light would disturb Apollo.  Apollo never asked him what he was doing sitting in the semi-darkness watching him.  Apollo knew.  He’d stretch and yawn, smiling sleepily and invitingly, pull Starbuck close and tight, and in making love Starbuck would be comforted and convinced that everything was all right, that by some miracle he had his Apollo back.  Until the next wakeful night and the next silent, disbelieving vigil.

Sometimes, rarely, the nights didn’t end in shared bodies and shared passion.  Sometimes when Starbuck woke to watch him, Apollo was rigid in his sleep, hands pressed to the implant in his temple, crying and mourning for something that had gone.  Starbuck could never decide if, in his dreams, Apollo was lamenting the loss of humanity or the loss of the Mask.  On those nights Starbuck’s thankfulness that Apollo was there was tinged with a vague fear about what it was he’d got back from the Enemy.

They never spoke about it, either about the fears Starbuck felt or what Apollo dreamed about.  Gradually, though, Starbuck had come to be convinced that Apollo was really there, had come to feel safe again.  Or at least as safe as any warrior could feel, who loved another warrior, but those risks were known, bearable.  Now Starbuck rarely woke in sweating fear that Apollo was gone, secure in the knowledge that Apollo was there and loved him.  Not that Apollo had ever said so, not since he’d come back, but Starbuck knew.  He had never been more at peace, never been happier.

But the peace he’d thought he’d found had proved to be surprisingly fragile, shattering like broken glass.  Starbuck was as distraught, threatened, terrified as he’d been when he’d thought Apollo was dead almost nine yahrens before. 

Troy felt the same; that the common centre of their worlds had rocked again.  They haunted the Life Centre, both of them getting as close as they could to the Isolation Chamber, pressed up close against the glass of the observation window.  From there they could see long black hair spread out on the pillow like a pool of dark water, the curve of Apollo’s cheek, and, looking sideways, the monitor that showed that he was still breathing.  It wasn’t much.  But it was all the reassurance they had.

When Cassie, sad but resolute, had given Hannath, Del and Micas the injections that ended it, she moved Apollo out of Isolation and into a small private room.  It was difficult enough even with a human brain to know how long it might be before a coma victim woke - days or sectons, sectars or yahrens.  Trying to assess someone whose brain had been as modified, as unfathomably changed as Apollo’s was, she hesitated even to guess how long it would be before he woke.  She thought that they might be in for a long haul, that was all.

The centon they’d settled Apollo into the little room, Starbuck was there.  He’d hovered behind them as they moved slowly from one room to the other.

"Can I hold him, Cass?" he’d asked, when Apollo hadn’t responded to the kisses, the caresses that Starbuck had needed to give him.  There’d been little comfort in that for Starbuck.

Cassie hadn’t the heart to say no.  She and Bill had gently lifted Apollo into a sitting position.  Starbuck, who’d already shed his flight jacket and boots slid onto the narrow hospital bed behind him and took him in his arms, as another medtech packed extra pillows behind them.  Starbuck leaned back, holding Apollo to his chest with both arms.  Apollo was warm and breathing.  He could almost have been asleep.

"Okay?" she’d asked.

He’d nodded, grateful.  He’d kissed Apollo’s hair, hugging his lover to him gently.  With one hand, he stroked back the thick black hair. 

"Please, Apollo.  Please come back.  I miss you like hell."
 






What struck Trent was how quiet it was in the little private room in Life Centre.  The head of the narrow bed was built into a bank of monitors, and although one of these beeped regularly, in between each sound was a deep, overwhelmingly oppressive silence.  So oppressive that the little beep was lost in it.  Trent wondered what it was monitoring, given that Apollo didn’t have a heart to beat.

Apollo didn't look as bad as Trent thought he might.  He was very pale, but if Trent hadn’t known better, he would have thought the colonel was simply asleep.  Starbuck was definitely asleep, on the bed with Apollo, cradling his lover in his arms.  He looked worse than Apollo did.  Much worse.  Cassie had already told Trent that Starbuck had flatly refused to let Apollo go.  Now he had a gaunt, unshaven look, a man waiting for the worst news, the news that he’d lost everything.

Trent sighed.  Poor bastard.  If Apollo didn’t make it, he thought they’d lose Starbuck as well.  They’d come close to it last time.  This time, what was there to anchor Starbuck, to hold him?

"What do I do?"

"Just talk to him, normally," said Cassie.  "And remember you’re talking to him.  Keep including him in the conversation."

"Okay."  Trent settled down in a chair beside the bed and took a thin hand in his.  "Hi, Apollo.  It’s me, Trent.  Cassie’s co-opted us all to come in and talk you into waking up, and I get first go."  He thought about it for a centon.  "Personally, I reckon it comes near to medical malpractice and you ought to sue.  It’ll be torture for you to have to listen to all of us burbling on at you.  You’ll have to wake up, just to get some peace and quiet."

Starbuck stirred, woken by Trent’s voice.  He looked at the captain sleepily for a moment, then forced a faint grin.  "Hi."  He glanced down at Apollo.  "We’ve got visitors, Apollo.  The least you can do is wake up and say hello."

"You never did have any manners," said Trent after a few microns of silence, punctuated by the little beep from the monitor.  "Starbuck’s bad influence, I guess.  He was crap at bringing you up."

"Hey! Don’t blame me," protested Starbuck.  "I did my best.  I tried hard to corrupt him."

"Well, I do remember seeing you under instruction in the Chancery on the Rising Star, Apollo," conceded Trent.

"Yeah.  All those noisy crowds and the bright lights, people having fun and making money -  and what do you do with them, Apollo?"

Silence.

Starbuck’s voice shook.  "All you ever do is pull a face and go and look for somewhere quiet with a good book."

Trent grinned.  "That’s our Apollo."  Then after a centon: "So, what shall we talk about?  Cassie suggested dirty stories."

"The only kind you know," Starbuck pointed out.

"True.  Did you two hear the one about the Kobolian priest, the three Tucana singers and the illegal gambling den behind enemy lines?"

"Remind me," said Starbuck, who’d invented it.  "You heard that one, Apollo?"

Again the slight pause while they waited for a response that wasn’t going to come.

"I think you might have told me this one, Apollo, actually, and I know you get your dirty stories from Starbuck, but here goes.  There was this Kobolian priest, see, who was having a little trouble with his vow of celibacy - "

Cassie smiled and left them to it.






For Starbuck, the days passed very slowly.  The rota of talkers was kept up relentlessly and he learned to sleep through most of it at night, although he joined in the non-conversations during the day.  After the first day, he was persuaded to let Apollo go for a few centons to shower and eat and as it became clear that Apollo wasn’t going either to die or wake up immediately, he’d consented to let the break stretch out to a centar or so each morning. 

He spent that time with Troy.  When Troy was Boxey, Apollo had always depended on Starbuck to look after the child if anything happened to him, and almost nine yahrens as Apollo’s lover had made him a second father to Apollo’s son. 

Starbuck had always felt guilty that he’d once let Apollo and Boxey down, had forgotten his promise to care for the child.  When Apollo had gone, when the Enemy had him, Starbuck had been too wrapped up in misery and despair to be able to help Boxey through.  This time he’d do better.  It was hard for him to leave Apollo even for a centar, but he did it, accepting his responsibility for Troy, trying to comfort the boy although devoid of comfort himself.  So they had breakfast together, Starbuck trying to be cheerful and hopeful, but even with Troy he’d be watching the clock, counting the centons until he could hurry back and climb onto the narrow hospital bed and pick Apollo up again.

He knew that Troy was having a hard time.  Seventeen might like to think of itself as tough and cool and indifferent, but he was badly affected and could rarely be persuaded to come into the Life Centre for more than a few centons.  He hated seeing his father lying so lifeless and still.  Starbuck suspected that for Troy, too, it brought back too many memories of the sectars when they’d thought Apollo was dead.  It was easier for Troy to hide away in Adama's quarters and just pretend that Apollo was away somewhere, still negotiating their passage through Dyss space, and would be back soon, safe and well.  Starbuck could hardly bear to see Apollo like this himself.  He understood perfectly that the boy felt the same way.

Troy said so, once, when his father had been in Life Centre for almost a secton.  "I remember, when he was gone that time – when they had him, and Grandpa told me he wasn't coming back... I spent centars lying still in bed, trying to imagine what it must be like to be dead."

"Don't!" said Starbuck, involuntarily.

"I used to wonder if dead people could... if he was missing me as much as I was missing him -"  Troy broke off, crumbling bread between his fingers, making a sticky paste.  He shook his head.  "Maybe I'll come and see him tomorrow."

"Sure," said Starbuck.  "Sure."







Seven days after Salik and Cassie officially declared Apollo to be comatose, five days after Hannath, Micas and Del died quietly and properly, Apollo's eyes opened for the first time.  Although there was no indication that he was actually seeing anything that was going on around him, and he certainly wasn’t tracking movement, the relieved doctors hailed this as an advance. 

"He’s on the way back," said Cassie, kissing Starbuck on the cheek. 

"How long?" demanded Adama, stooping down to hug his son gently.

"That I can’t tell." Cassie’s smile faded slightly.  One of the hardest things she’d learned on her transition from socialator to medic, was how few certainties there were in life.  Once she would have said that the only certainty was death, but Apollo had disproved that once.  Perhaps he would again.

"But he is coming out of it?" Athena was ungainly with her third child, only sectons away from the birth, and she moved carefully and clumsily to hug her brother.

"He’s on the way back," Cassie repeated, and she sighed inwardly, wondering when she would have to tell them the truth.  Soon perhaps.

Starbuck sighed, and for a centon buried his face in Apollo’s hair.  When he looked up his eyes were wet, but his smile was incandescent. 

"Wonderful day, isn’t it?" he asked of no-one in particular, then focused on Athena, who, like him, was crying with relief.  "I don’t know about you, Athena, but I feel a little bit of promiscuous kissing is in order here.  Would you and Cassie like to form an orderly queue?"







It was Boomer’s turn on the rota again, thirteen days in.  He gave Starbuck a hug, arm around the thin shoulders, and leaned down to look into Apollo’s eyes.  Like most of the rota of talkers he found it rather spooky to be looking into green eyes that were dull and lifeless, instead of the normally vivid and bright gaze.  Unlike most of the others, he could hide it better.

"’Morning, Apollo.  How are you today?"  He waited and shrugged.  "You know, I could get used to having a commanding officer of such outstanding taciturnity.  When you’re not shouting orders at me, it’s downright peaceful and quiet - almost like being on holiday."

"You’ll be in the shit if he remembers any of this when he wakes up," said Starbuck.

"I don’t care if I’m in so deep I need breathing apparatus," said Boomer.  "So long as he does wake up."

"Amen," sighed Starbuck

"So what shall we talk about today?"  Boomer looked at the way Starbuck was holding Apollo.  Even knowing what he felt for Apollo, his devotion was outstanding. 

"Anything, so long as it’s not Trent’s dirty stories."  Starbuck tried for a grin.  It failed lamentably.  He looked like he was going to cry.

"He said he’d told every dirty story he knew."

"Several times over."

Boomer grinned.  "So you talk for a change, Apollo, or we’ll just have to have Trent’s stories all over again." 

Silence. 

Boomer sighed and exchanged looks with Starbuck.  "How is it, Bucko?"

"Oh, you know," Starbuck said, voice thick.  "Hard."

"You need a break."

"I need for him to wake up.  That’s all I need."  Starbuck smoothed Apollo’s hair back, hugging him gently. 

Boomer nodded.  "I know.  We’re all missing him, Starbuck.  Everyone is, but the family especially.  We’re missing both of you.  Zac’s almost impossible to get to bed at night.  He keeps demanding his uncle Starbuck and all we get are temper tantrums."

Starbuck managed the slightest of grins.  "Sounds to me like he takes after his uncle Apollo.  Apollo was world expert at tantrums when he was a kid."

"That’s what Thenie thinks."  Boomer glanced up as Cassie and Salik came in, Adama and Athena close behind them.  Cassie, he thought, looked strained and nervous.

"Hello, Boomer," she said quietly. 

"Cassie."  Boomer jumped up, hand held out to guide Athena into his seat.  "What’s going on?" he asked his wife as she settled down.

"I don’t know.  Ask Cass."

For a centon Cassie busied herself about the monitors.  She carefully tidied the covers over Apollo then straightened up.  "I needed to talk to you all.  I thought it would be easier on Boomer’s turn on the rota."  She paused, fiddled with a scanner for a micron.  "I’m suspending the rota."

"Why?" Athena clutched at Boomer's hand.  "What’s this all about?"

"I thought you said that we need to keep up the stimulation if we’re to reach Apollo,"  said Adama.

Starbuck said nothing.  He just held Apollo and waited.

Cassie sighed.  "I stopped it because it isn’t really having any effect."

"But you said he was coming out of it, that there was increased brain activity - " protested Adama.  "Cassie - ?"

"He is coming out of it, slowly, but that rota just isn’t helping.  He’s responding more noticeably to changes in temperature and to pain.  But we’ve done extensive tests, and he’s not responding at all to either visual or aural stimuli."  She paused, giving them a centon to absorb that, then added gently:  "I’m sorry."

Athena and Adama stared at her, shocked, then as if he was trying desperately to give her chance to deny it, to retract, Adama said slowly, "He’s not responding to light or sound?"

Boomer swore under his breath, turning from Athena to stare at Apollo’s face.

Starbuck, who had, as usual, buried his face in Apollo’s hair to murmur to him lovingly, imploring him to wake up, looked up at that, anguished.  "Apollo’s blind?"

"Yes," Cassie said regretfully.  "We think so.  We think that when he wakes up he’ll be blind and deaf."







"I think you’d better run through this again." Adama was grim.  He had just broken the news to Troy, and every time he saw his grandson’s grief-stricken expression, his cold anger grew harder and colder.  "I want to be sure I understand exactly what’s going on here, and Troy needs to know."

Starbuck had been coaxed away from Apollo for a few centons, into Cassie’s office.  His face was white and strained, under the untidy mop of blond hair.  His eyes were dully blue, slightly opaque and unfocused, lost; like someone drugged or sleepwalking, waking up in a strange place amongst strange people with no common ground and no common language.  He sat with one arm around Troy.  Adama didn’t know who was supposed to be comforting whom.  They looked equally shocked and bewildered, equally lost.

Cassie looked at Salik, but the older medic looked away leaving it to her to explain.  "There’s an injury to the brain, Troy," she said gently, speaking directly to the boy.  He lifted his head to watch her, his brown eyes reddened with tears.  "There are two possible causes, and they may both be operating here.  We’re not too sure.  First we know that whenever your father put on the Mask, there was a centon when he was blind and deaf, the centon it took for the Mask to... to switch off the parts of his brain that process sight and hearing.  We think that’s because the Mask took over those functions for him: we know that the implant is focused on those areas.  It’s possible that the implant, because it’s changed his brain, has been a conduit for the poison to reach those parts of Apollo’s brain and damage them."

"What’s the other reason?" he asked dully.

"The other thing we know is that when the K’h’n were here, just after your father came back and they took the Mask off him, they carried out a lot of tests on him."

"Yeah," said Troy.  "They experimented on him, like he was some kind of animal.  I know.  Starbuck told me."

"The tests were intended to try and see how much of the Enemy conditioning was left," Cassie said, still gentle.

"They hurt him." Troy was unforgiving.  "He helped them."  The look he gave Salik was angry and resentful.  "It was his fault."

Salik said nothing. 

Cassie made no comment on Troy’s accusation, kept her voice level and calm.  "We think that some of those tests might have caused some damage, and again allowed the poison to latch onto the damaged areas and cause more problems."

"Like the test that blinded him for over eight centars?" Starbuck spoke for the first time.

"He told you?" Salik flushed slightly. 

"Of course," said Starbuck.  "And that you did nothing to stop the tests."

"It was an accident.  I do not believe that was the intended result," Salik was defensive.  "We knew that the effect was temporary and there was no need to stop the test.  I couldn’t have anticipated this kind of damage."

"No.  I don’t suppose the K’h’n knew or cared about what damage they were doing, anymore than you did.  They thought we were little more than animals, and so it didn’t matter what they did to him.  You think of him as a reanimated cadaver, and again, it didn’t matter what they did to him."

"Grandpa, I really don’t want that man near my Dad."  Troy spoke firmly, not as a child.  "He’s done enough harm."

Cassie intervened quickly.  "He can help me better than anyone else, Troy.  He knows more about the changes the Enemy made to your father than anyone.  I’d prefer it if he stayed." 

Troy looked at her doubtfully, then at Starbuck for guidance.  "What do you think?"

"I think that I don’t trust him any more than you do, Boxey,"  Starbuck said, and for once there were no indignant protests about the lapse into the childhood nickname.  "But we need every possible help for your Dad, and I trust Cassie to keep an eye on him."

"I want to help," said Salik, sullenly.

"You never told me!" said Adama, coldly furious.  "You never told me what effect those tests were having on him!"

"You knew," Salik said, equally as cold.  "You authorised them." 

"I did what I had to do to keep him alive!"  But it sounded thin to his own ears and he didn’t like the look of surprise that Troy gave him.  "The Council would have ordered him executed.  I did what I had to do."

"So did we all, Adama." snapped Salik.
 
"I don’t think recriminations help very much," said Boomer, ever the practical one.  "What can be done, Cassie?"

"Not much.  The visual cortex is virtually destroyed.  There’s no hope of restoring his sight.  I might have been able to do something if it were his eyes that were damaged, but this is an injury to the brain, and I can’t operate on him even if I knew how to repair it, not with that implant there. Damage that and the Lords alone know what would be the consequence.  His hearing, though..." Cassie looked thoughtful, eyes on the screen on her desk.  "The damage to his hearing seems more localised, in the cochlea and the nerves running into the hearing centre.  I may be able to bypass that with electronic amplifiers, the same way as we restore hearing to profoundly deaf children.  We’ll have to see when he wakes up, but I’m more hopeful about that."

"And when will that be?"  Boomer persisted.  He put an arm around Athena’s shaking shoulders, hugging her to him comfortingly.  "You said earlier that he was showing definite signs of coming out of it, that he was responding to heat and cold."

"I don’t know."  Cassie rubbed wearily at her eyes.  "Soon, I think.  A few days, a secton maybe."

Starbuck hugged Troy briefly and stood up.  "Then if there’s nothing more to be said, I’ll get back to Apollo.  He needs me." 

Later Adama was to wonder if he’d imagined that there was the merest hint of satisfaction in Starbuck’s tone.







Starbuck came into Life Centre at his usual fast pace.  He’d taken his normal centar out to clean up and snatch breakfast with Troy, and was heading back to take up his post.  He slid to a halt.  Everyone was clustered around the window that gave onto the small private room where Apollo had been lying for seventeen long days, looking through intently.  Adama and Athena were there, Boomer and Cassie.  Salik was watching a monitor closely.

"No!" protested Starbuck, visibly frightened.  "Apollo?"

"It’s all right," Adama said quickly, reassuringly.

"Then why aren’t you in there?" demanded Starbuck. 

It was understood that whilst Starbuck was away, Adama was on Apollo-holding duty.  Adama privately thought that a centar a day was unbelievably insufficient, but nothing short of high explosive would move Starbuck.  Some days he was persuaded to share, but the narrow hospital bed got too crowded for three and Adama always gave up first.

Cassie turned to face him  "Because I ordered him out." she said.  "Shut up and listen, Starbuck.  Apollo’s almost conscious - I just want to give him a little push."

"I don’t understand!" Starbuck craned to see over everyone’s heads.  Apollo lay back against the pillows.  He looked as if he were asleep, eyes closed.

"We’ve been making it far too easy for him.  He’s warm, comfortable, fed intravenously - and he has you.  So I stopped feeding him yesterday, dropped the temperature in there and now we’ve taken you away.  Let’s see if that grabs his attention."

"Oh," said Starbuck  "What do you expect to happen?"

"That he’ll be forced to notice the change in his nice, cosy little environment and wake up.  We’ll just have to wait and see."

"How long are you going to wait?" asked Athena.  She was pleating and unpleating the fabric of her skirt, her hands moving restlessly

"As long as it takes," said Cassie, grimly.







It was like someone had plugged Starbuck into a power supply.  He couldn’t settle for more than a few centons without jumping up to stare forlornly through the little window, before returning only too briefly to his seat before prowling restlessly around the main Life Centre treatment area.  It had a pattern to it.  Sit, fidget, tap fingers, tap feet, tap anything; jump up and stare, hands twitching at his sides; sit a little more, fidget, tap fingers, tap feet, tap anything; jump and stare, prowl around; sit... 

"I could anaesthetise him, I suppose," said Cassie, watching Starbuck with unfriendly eyes.  She’d endured more than three centars of him prowling around her, asking constantly what was happening and her patience was wearing very thin.  His devotion was all very well, she supposed.

"If we all begged you very, very nicely?" Boomer asked with a faint attempt at a joke.

"Don’t tempt me." Cassie stiffened as the monitors spiked.  "We’re away.  Alpha wave activity."

They all crowded around the window again and stared anxiously through.  Apollo was moving.  For the first time since the shuttle had been brought in, he was moving.  Nothing terribly dramatic - but he was groping blindly with his right hand, evidently feeling for something.  He was frowning, and his face, too, turned towards the right.  Where Starbuck usually was.  The vague green eyes opened and the frown grew deeper.

"He’s looking for you, Starbuck," said Cassie.  "It's working.  He's looking for you."

Starbuck choked.  "And I’m not there!"

He made to turn for the door, but Cassie caught his arm.  "Wait a little longer, Starbuck.  Please.  I want him awake.  This could just do it."

"He needs me, Cass!"

"We need him awake."  Cassie watched her patient carefully.  "It’s looking very hopeful.  All right, listen to me.  We’re going in there, and I want you to touch him, see if he reacts.  Then we’ll have to see how far out he is."

"We can’t communicate with him, Cassie, if you’re right about the amount of damage," said Adama. 

"Well, we can eventually, but whether he’s far enough out of it now for it to be effective is the question.  We can spell the words into his palm.  It takes a long time, but it can be done.  And hopefully, only until I can put in the amplifiers.  But right now, it’s not likely that he’s awake enough for that.  Coming out of a coma isn’t like waking out of a sleep.  It could be days yet before he’s fully conscious."

"Although with him we can’t be sure," said Salik quietly.  "He’s been changed so much that most of the medical textbook doesn’t really apply."

"True," Cassie said.  "I suppose we’re really guessing."

Starbuck had pressed himself up against the window, as if he could get closer. "Please, Cassie.  Let me in there," he pleaded.  "He’s getting upset."

Cassie watched for a centon.  Apollo was increasingly distressed, still looking for Starbuck, his hand reaching into emptiness.  For the first time, he made some sound, a wordless, thin, confused whimper.  She winced.  It sounded like an animal, something painful, dreadful. 

She nodded.  "All right, Starbuck.  Just you and me."  She almost had to hold him back.  "Take it slow, and don’t expect too much.  Please listen to me, Starbuck."

"Can I touch him?" 

"Yes.  Let’s see if he realises you’re here."

Utterly devoted, that was Starbuck.  He almost ran around the bed in his eagerness, to the right hand side, where Apollo’s hand was still searching fruitlessly for something that should be there.  He caught Apollo’s hand in both of his.  Cassie's heart sank.  Such devotion, such terrible devotion.

"I’m here," he said gently.  "I’m here."

Cassie turned her attention to the monitors around the bed.  "The graph’s spiking.  There’s something."

"I’m here," Starbuck said again and, bent his head to kiss the thin fingers he held in his own.  "Cass!"

Cassie glanced over and nodded when Starbuck held up their locked hands to show her.  "He knows you’re there," she said, satisfied.

Starbuck kissed Apollo properly.  The whimpering stopped.  Apollo turned his head towards Starbuck, the vacant green eyes clouded with confusion.  Starbuck stroked Apollo’s face, and had Cassie, watching closely, had to blink away tears when Apollo pressed his cheek against the comforting hand.

"I’m here, Apollo," he said.  "I’ll always be here."

Such terrible devotion.







Long ago, whenever they’d put the Mask on me in one of their futile, simple little experiments to try and assess what it did, there was always a centon of dark silence, a centon where the Mask blanked out everything while it made its cold greeting.  A centon of recognition, of formal identification, almost of ceremonial courtesy, where we each acknowledged the other, the Mask and me. 

It’s odd that I should feel that something was there, waiting for me, acknowledging me, knowing me.  It has no awareness, you understand, when it's apart from me, no real identity.  But, in those long sectons when I was nothing but a lab rat, a test machine for Salik and Wilker to play with – well, in those sections we were together we had a different awareness, an identity that was more than we were when we were separated.  Cold, passionless as the Mask is, it makes me more than I am without it.  Something more than human.

Together we were more than Wilker and his techs could measure, every sense enhanced, more powerful and potent than they could imagine.  Certainly more than we ever revealed to them, ever hinted at.  But that moment of silence and darkness was a moment of vulnerability and danger.  It frightened us, a little, that centon when even the humans could threaten us, when we realised that we were alone and there were none of our own to protect us. 

For an endless time I’d been trapped in that centon now.  It wasn’t the same.  No matter how I cried for it, how much I called it, there was no answer from the Mask. 

Just the dark silence.







"Maybe now you see what I mean," said Salik, handing the readout to Cassie.

Cassie took the readout and glanced at it, then handed it back.  "I’ve already looked at it."

She went back to watching through the observation window.  Starbuck was sitting on the edge of Apollo’s bed, cradling his lover in his arms, rocking him gently, talking to him incessantly.

"Doesn’t he ever get tired of that?" she muttered impatiently, then turned back to Salik.  "I agree,"  she said.  "It’s far better than it ought to be at this stage."

"I’ve never seen anyone come out of a coma this fast, this completely.  Not in over forty yahrens."  Salik hunched over the monitor screen.  "Three days, and normal alpha wave activity.  Normal respiration.  Normal everything.  Well, as far as Apollo is ever normal.  Apart from the blindness and deafness, you wouldn’t be able to tell he’d been ill."

"That’s a pretty devastating consequence," Cassie said wryly.

"You know what I mean."

"You said that we couldn’t know how he’d react," Cassie reminded him, leaning back against the window and watching him thoughtfully.  "You’ve a theory?"

Salik shrugged.  "For what it’s worth.  I think it’s down to the implant."

Cassie waited.

"I think that it recognised the danger to him of the allergy reaction, or poison or whatever it was happened to them -"

"Looks more like an allergic reaction," commented Cassie.

Salik nodded.  "I suppose.  Except if the Dyss knew they’d react to the substance in that way, it was deliberate poisoning."

"We don’t know that, and we may never know, even if Apollo can tell us what he thinks happened down there."

"Adama suspects, though, don’t you think?  Or we wouldn’t still be sitting here kicking our heels on the edge of Dyss space."

"I’m told that the Dyss have gone into a period of mourning, out of respect," Cassie noted.  "That would have slowed down negotiations."

The look they exchanged was heavy with shared cynicism. 

Salik snorted.  "Would you?" he asked.  "Mourn for aliens you barely knew?"

"I doubt it," she said.  "Although I might if I was trying to divert suspicion away from what I’d done.  But to get back to your theory.  What role do you think the implant played?"

"I think that it recognised that he was in danger of dying, like the others, and it closed his brain down until the danger was passed.  It’s as if that implant of his switched him off for a couple of sectons, then switched back on again and it’s business as usual.  Barring the damage to the visual cortex, of course."

Cassie considered it.  "That implies that the implant is constantly live, constantly monitoring him."

"I suspect that it is," said Salik. 

"And is more than we thought, not just an interface with the Mask, but something more.  A protective mechanism?"

"Did you ever go over the test results?"

"Several times." Cassie frowned then admitted, "I didn’t understand a lot of it."

"Nor did I, and I still don’t.  I have a copy, you know, and I still worry away at it sometimes.  Retirement isn’t all that exciting, and running the long-term care unit doesn’t exactly require the brain of a genius."  Salik looked again at the read-out.  "I still don’t understand what happened to him.  And I know we’ll never really agree about this, but I think that I was right about him then and I’m right about him now.  He’s dangerous, Cass."

"He’s Apollo."

"Not any more.  He hasn’t been for yahrens.  He’s not human, Cass, and this is one more proof of it."

"People react differently, and there’s nothing very threatening about coming out of a coma.  I’d want a lot more evidence than this before I agreed with you that he's a danger to us."

Salik shrugged and picked up his bag.  His shuttle back to the Alcestis and semi-retirement was due in less than twenty centons.  He and Cassie had agreed that there was no need for him to stay now, and Apollo would object violently if he knew Salik was there.  It was better all round if he went.

"You’ll get it, Cass.  You’ll get more than either of us would like, I suspect.  Now, why don’t you walk an old man to his shuttle?"
 






Starbuck took Apollo’s hand in his, carefully smoothed his palm over Apollo’s, and then started spelling out his name with the tip of a finger.

"Starbuck."  Apollo spoke almost before he started, his voice flat and metallic, oddly modulated, the volume uncertain; the voice of someone who couldn’t hear anymore to pitch it or control it.  The sombre expression on his face lifted for a micron.  Starbuck was the only comfort in the terrible black silence.

Starbuck grinned and drew a little heart into Apollo’s palm.

Apollo nodded and reached out with his free hand.  Starbuck stooped quickly to meet him, making sure that Apollo’s hand connected with his face.  For a centon the long fingers touched his cheek, tracing the line of his jaw, to his mouth.  Starbuck kissed the fingers and for the first time since he’d woken up, Apollo raised his face for Starbuck’s greeting kiss.

Despite Salik’s dark foreboding, there had been no dramatic awakening from the coma.  There were two days of long periods when Apollo had seemed almost to have sunk back into the torpor, mingled with periods of increasingly distressed awareness.  By the end of the second day he’d fallen into a pattern of drifting away for a few centons and then waking bewildered and terrified again, each time calling frantically for Starbuck, the almost-frenzy comforted only when Starbuck was holding him, rocking him into quiet. 

In the end Cassie had sedated him to control the increasing panic and to give Starbuck some rest.  Cassie was not cynical by nature.  The medic’s armour of detachment that she was inevitably developing was not yet so dense that the irony of having to sedate a coma victim was lost on her.

When he’d woken on the third morning, he was alert and very demanding.  He was most definitely awake.  It had been hard for Cassie, explaining to him what had happened, laboriously and repeatedly spelling the words into his palm.  Confused at first, then angry and disbelieving, it had taken Apollo some considerable time to realise that he wasn't trapped in some dreadful nightmare, hallucinating.  Instead, he was trapped inside a dreadful reality.

He didn’t take it well.  Because he’d endured and accepted so much and had done so with impressive dignity, they'd wondered whether he’d endure this too.  But Apollo had no intention of enduring or accepting anything.  As Cassie had said to Salik, defiant in the face of the older medic’s scepticism, he showed an all-too-human capacity for wallowing in self pity and misery and the streak of bad temper that he normally controlled was allowed free reign.  Nursing him was no sinecure.

For the first few days furious, shocked denial had alternated with sullen, despairing withdrawal.  Even Starbuck hadn’t been able to reach him, in either state, not able even to calm the fits of temper.  Apollo would snatch his hand away whenever anyone tried to talk to him, sometimes struggling wildly when Starbuck or Adama tried to touch him or hold him.  More than once he’d struck out, screaming in impotent fury.  Once, still tired and sad after over two sectons of watching and waiting, Starbuck hadn’t been able to get out of the way fast enough.  He was still sporting the black eye where Apollo’s fist had caught him.

But Starbuck preferred that to the times when Apollo lay like a dead thing, withdrawn and unresponsive.  Then he’d let Starbuck take his hand and spell out the messages of love and hope and fruitless comfort, but lie in the narrow bed, indifferent, isolated, absent.  The green eyes would stare blindly into the middle distance, no life in them, as blank as shutters over empty windows.  Those moments of withdrawal brought the whole horror home to Starbuck.  Apollo would never look out through those eyes again.  They’d always be expressionless and remote.

The last day or so Apollo had been quieter.  Not necessarily more accepting.  Just quieter.  Cassie said wryly that he’d exhausted himself. 

He’d certainly exhausted her.







Once more Starbuck traced the little heart on the palm of Apollo’s hand, and was rewarded with the smallest of smiles.

His hand stroked Apollo’s cheek and spelled another message into Apollo’s hand.  Together.  Be okay.

Apollo grimaced.  Not only did he not share Starbuck’s optimism - how could anything ever be okay again? - but he hated the way that it was said.  He hated the truncated sentences, almost as if they were using some kind of sensory baby-talk with him.  He understood that they did it to speed up their 'conversations' with him, but it made his isolation seem even more profound.  Everything he’d ever taken for granted had been snatched away.  He couldn’t see Starbuck’s face as he talked, would never see it: couldn’t hear his voice, may never hear it.  What could ever be okay in that?

"The others?" Apollo asked abruptly.  He hadn’t asked up until then, too wrapped up in his own frustration and anger to even think of them.

"Starbuck?"  Apollo knew the answer.  Starbuck’s non-answer had told him.

Sorry, Apollo.  All dead.  Starbuck spelled the words slowly.  He hugged Apollo gently.

Apollo let him, silent.  He couldn’t bring the images into his mind’s eye: the darkness was too intense for that, still too overwhelming.  But he thought briefly of Del and Micas, more deeply of Hannath.

Apollo?

"Okay.  I thought that they must be.  The Dyss?"

Helping.  Scientists working on cause.

Apollo frowned.  The Dyss knew the cause.

Still outside Dyss space 

"How long since I got back?" asked Apollo, confused, trying to get it all straight..

3 sectons

Three sectons.  Three sectons since the Dyss had poisoned them.  Three sectons, and they still sitting outside Dyss space as if nothing had ever happened.  What in hell was going on?

Council want talk

"Council?  What do they want?"

Tell what remember

Apollo thought about that, wondering what it was, exactly, that he remembered.  But most of all, wondering how much he would tell.  Wondering how much he wanted to tell.






Cassie’s just told me that I’m getting on so well that they’re operating tomorrow, to try and repair the damage to my hearing.  I wish I knew when tomorrow was.  In this place, there’s no sense of time or place.  There’s only this voice inside my head.

It feels like I’ve been like this forever, that I’ve been this alone and scared for ever.  Starbuck keeps telling me that everything will be okay, that he’s here, with me, and always will be.  I know that.  I know it’s him holding me, that he‘s here.  But I don’t feel like I'm really here.  This silent darkness is all there is.  Silent except for the little voice inside my head that tries to remember what it was like to be able to see and hear. 

I hate it that all I have of Starbuck right now is a touch.  Maybe after tomorrow it’ll be better.

Nothing much to do but lie here, helpless, and remember, try to see the images in the dark.  There’s an endless time to remember.  And all sorts of memories come back when there’s nothing else.

Like remembering that when we were in our final yahren at the Academy, our instructors took us through the techniques we might need to survive torture and interrogation if we were ever captured.  That was a pretty shocking concept.  I know that we were all very young and mostly still very idealistic - with Starbuck, perhaps the notable exception.  His life in a succession of orphanages didn’t lead to idealism - but we’d none of us ever thought about the possibility of being captured by the enemy.  All we thought about was the glory and splendour, being heroes, saving our ships or the Colonies from the Cylon menace through acts of amazing heroism and nobility and having our moment of fame and adulation in the news broadcasts.  Even dying in a blaze of glorious self-sacrifice had its appeal, our last words of honour and courage recorded by weeping, adoring comrades and quoted approvingly in the history books.  We’d prefer not to die, you understand, but at least that way had a satisfying amount of drama in it.  I’ll bet I wasn’t the only cadet who’d planned his state funeral, getting a lump in the throat at the image of that lonely coffin parading slowly down the silent, crowded, mourning streets, the medals scattered forlornly on the flag-draped lid.

Lords, but I was so naïve!

Well, I was very young.  And more idealistic than most, despite being Starbuck’s best friend.  His cynicism took some time to rub off onto me.  I think my first real firefight did the trick.  I grew very old, very quickly in that battle, and although I did come out of it with a chestful of medals, I also came out of it without the youthful idealism.

The point I was trying to get to before I was side-tracked into laughing at myself at twenty, was that our instructors tried to explain to us what we might expect if we were captured, tried to prepare us as best they could.  There was only so much they could teach us, only so many techniques.  After all, no technique in the world will withstand pain and torment forever, and all they could teach us was how to endure for as long as we could.  How long that would be would depend on our individual strengths and weaknesses.

Among other things, they taught us to cope with sensory deprivation.  Each of us was locked into a deprivation tank and left there for centars, blind, deaf, floating.  There was no sensation, nothing to cling to except the voice inside your head that was you.  The worst thing was how distorted your perceptions became, particularly how distorted time was. 

The first time I was in there, I was convinced they’d forgotten all about me and they’d left me there for days - it was about two centars, I think - and I was damned close to panic by the time they took me out.  Well, if I’m honest, I was hysterical.  So they made me do it again. 

The second time was better.  One of the techs felt sorry for me, I think, and told me what to do, and this time I had an anchor that kept me reasonably okay about it.  I spent the time listening to my own heart beating.  That helped me gauge how long I was in there.  After that it was boring, but bearable.

Waking up after that stuff the Dyss gave me was like being back in the tank.  Only this time they have forgotten to come and get me out and I don’t have a heartbeat to listen to.  I don’t have that little anchor.

I know I didn’t exactly take it on the chin when Cassie explained things to me, and I’m not very proud of the way I fell apart when I realised what had happened.  I went through every emotion known to man, I think, but underneath it all I’m just so angry that this has happened to me.  For fuck’s sake, it isn’t as though I haven’t been mutilated enough by the Enemy.  It just isn’t bloody fair that this should have been done to me as well.

By the Enemy.

And that’s a thought to dwell on in this dreadful place I’m lost in.  There’s nothing much else to occupy me.  I can’t tell what time it is, where I am, who’s with me, if I’m alone and forgotten.  They could have moved me somewhere else while I’m asleep and I’ll never know.  That’s what terrifies me.  There’s nothing, no structure, no independence, no control.  Just helplessness. 

Once my life was governed by the clock: it’s eight, time for duty; nine, time for the command meeting; one, time for lunch, wonder if Starbuck’s back from patrol yet and can eat with me…  All gone.  All the routine we live by, gone.  Now my life’s far more primitive and elemental - time to eat, I’m hungry; time to sleep, I’m tired.  And absolutely fuck all to do in between.

It’s boring and unbearable.

Trapped like this there’s only the voice inside my head, going over and over what had happened on Dyss, remembering.  Del, Micas, Khaeyr.  Hannath.

Nothing would ever have come of it - Starbuck and I are committed to each other and I don’t think that even me being like this now will shake him - but I’d liked Hannath when I’d got to know her.  I’d liked the way she’d let me see the sense of humour that had been hidden behind the Councillor, I’d liked her intelligence and charm.  Hell, I’d even liked and appreciated the naked ambition.  She’d been honest, at least, and that was damn unusual.  I think, if I’m as honest as she was, that I was a little bit in love with her, and she with me.  There was a spark. 

I can’t tell Starbuck about this.  He wouldn’t understand and it would hurt him.  But now and again I think about her the same way I think about Serina.  My father once said to me that he remembered mother and Zac with a kind of regretful affection, that the overwhelming grief had faded into something more bearable and that he was left with a poignant, very dear memory.  Serina’s become that for me.  Maybe Hannath will too. 

I think a lot about Hannath, and Khaeyr, and the black Dyss.  They did it deliberately, the Dyss.  I haven’t told anyone yet what happened.  I need to think about it, decide what it was all about.  But I do remember that the black Dyss came for us, and the way that they just walked past the others as if they weren’t there, coming for me. 

And then he came, the one who scared them.  The one the black Dyss respected and feared. 

The one who wore a Mask.

He spoke to me, I remember that.  He told me things, that it was necessary, that he’d be waiting for me. 

In between letting Starbuck hold me and try to talk to me about things that don’t connect to me any more, I think about that, about the Mask I’d touched with my hand before everything went black.

The Enemy. 

He has to be from the Enemy.  But they were nine yahrens behind us, we’re uncountable light yahrens away from Enemy space.  We’re in a different galaxy, for crying out loud.  He can’t have been from the Enemy. 

I’m sure he is, though.  They’re here, close.  Waiting for me.  And yes, I do know where he is, where he’s waiting.

Like I said, I’ve kept quiet about it all.  Starbuck said that the Council wants to talk to me when I’m ready, and I’m not ready.  I’m not sure I ever will be, not to talk to them.  I can’t tell them about the message he left me.  They’d never understand it.  I don’t myself.

Suffering.  He said what was about to happen would involve some suffering, but it was necessary, and I’d understand.  How the hell can I understand why it’s necessary to blind me, deafen me; to reduce me to this… this helpless, useless kind of existence?  Prison  - or death - would have been kinder.

I’ve thought about that a lot, whenever I can.  In the spaces between people trying to talk to me and comfort me. 

Starbuck tries hard, but not even he can begin to comprehend how awful it is.  Every time I wake up, things are as black and as silent as when Cassie sedated me the night before.  I can still touch things, but that’s all I have, the only way to communicate now.  But it’s frightening.  No, it’s more than that.  It’s paralysingly terrible and terrifying. 

I hate it that I don’t know what’s going on.  There’s no warning that someone’s here with me, that someone’s about to take my hand to talk to me.  Starbuck tries to get my attention gently.  He always touches my face and then puts his arms around me.  But I still jump every time, scared stupid.  It’s almost a kind of violation, even from him.  Certainly a vulnerability that no-one should have to feel.  I don’t have any control over anything to do with me, can’t initiate contact, can’t withdraw from it.  I’ve ended up being so passive, waiting for someone else to act.  I hate it.

I hate it that I’m so dependent on Starbuck.

I can’t tell him.  He was scared by what happened, and it would hurt him, when all he wants to do is help and be there, and love me.  I can’t tell him how helpless I feel, that sometimes I’d rather be dead than have to depend on anyone, even him, for everything.

I can’t wait for tomorrow, to get some control back.  Oh God, let it work.  Please let it work.  If I can hear, I can get around on my own, do things.  Lots of blind people manage that.  I can learn to get out of this bloody prison, the one that *he* put me in. 

Then Starbuck can have a life of his own too, not just looking after me.  I don’t want him to be tied to me like that.

I don’t want to be tied to him, like that.

 

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