Section Six

 

"Do you think Dad’s sick, Starbuck?"  Troy asked quietly. "Sick in his mind, I mean, from the coma and being blind and everything?"

"No," said Starbuck.  He was holding himself very still and quiet, trying to hold back the terror and despair.  "No.  I don’t think he’s sick."

"Then it’s the Mask."

Starbuck nodded.  He looked around the living room as if something had shifted radically, the universe had given itself a little shake and moved sideways by a few atoms, perhaps, and everything was slightly unfamiliar and had to be relearned again.  After a centon’s staring, everything looked the same.  The same furniture, shabby now after over a decade of continuous living with no chance of the refit the Galactica’s living quarters would have had if it hadn’t been for the Destruction.  The same pictures, the same books.  Apollo's precious, mouldy old books. 

"Do you think we’ll get Dad back?" 

"He said he’d come back."

Starbuck was tired, drained.  He’d had what seemed like centars of a euphemistically-named debriefing session with Tigh and Adama.  Something closer to an interrogation, really.  They’d listened to what he’d managed to record of his conversation with Apollo, if that was what it could be called.  Over and over, they’d listened, Adama’s face grey with fatigue and bewilderment; Tigh’s expression grim;  Starbuck, with his head in his hands, holding back the fear and anguish.

His communicator beeped at him.  His presence was required back in the Bridge office, immediately.  Mechanically, he acknowledged the call, stood up to obey.

Troy got up too, reluctant to let him go.

"I mean," Troy said delicately, ignoring the interruption.  "I mean, will we get my real Dad back?" 

Starbuck paused on his way to the door, focused on the boy for the first time and considered the question.  He held out his arms and pulled Troy close, smiled apologetically, sorry that he didn’t know the answer that would comfort them both.

"I don’t know, son.  Sometimes I wonder if we’ve ever had him back."







Long ago, Starbuck’s world had come to a sudden, bone-jarring end.  There’d been no warning.  Everything had been calm, quiet, seemingly normal, in so far as their new lives after the Destruction could ever be normal.  They hadn’t seen the Cylons in sectars, and everyone had begun to think that they’d finally out-run their tin-head pursuers, and that from now on there’d be nothing but the long journey to find Earth.  A journey that may even be relatively peaceful and uneventful.

It had been peaceful and uneventful for so many sectons that Captain Apollo had decided that it was time that the new recruits had their first real flights.  He’d looked over the simulator scores of the twenty or so cadets - some of them barely out of childhood - and divided them up between his best pilots, each pair of cadets with one experienced pilot.  That way, as he had said to Colonel Tigh when getting approval, they should all have a reasonably good chance of getting back in one piece, whilst enjoying themselves on what should be an uneventful first patrol.

Well, he’d been half right.  All the cadets had got back in one piece at least.  The other half - well that had been a little more problematic.




"We have a small problem, Skipper," said Jolly as Apollo finalised the briefing.  "Giles has gone down with food poisoning.  He was going to take two of the babies out in their prams."

Later, Starbuck had found it hard to forgive either of them.  Giles for being sick, Jolly for telling Apollo about it.  If they hadn’t, then maybe the world wouldn’t have ended in fire and death and destruction.  Irrational, but there you are.  Grief and black despair are rarely aids to rationality.

But at the time he barely noticed.  He was too busy teasing his own pair of cadets about the terrors awaiting them.

Apollo sighed slightly.   "Damn," he said, sincerely, in sincere tones, seeing his chance of a quiet couple of centars in the duty office vanishing.  He looked the assembled cadets over, mentally reviewing the day’s flight lists.  "All right, I’ll take Giles’ two."

"Well, that should scare them silly." Boomer looked innocently at his Captain.  "Having their first patrol under the steely gaze of the big boss himself."

"Scares me," Starbuck agreed, turning to grin at the cadets in question. 

The two kids were red faced and squirming.  Later, Starbuck was never able to forgive either of them.  He never said anything, never spoke to them, but he couldn’t ever forgive them for being alive.

"As long as they do what they’re told, I don’t care how scared they get," Apollo said, giving the two kids the kind of friendly grin that had them mentally calling on every God they’d ever heard of, and quite a few they hadn’t, to make sure they wouldn’t goof up too badly in front of the Captain.  "All right, everyone, get to your ships.  And any of you who doesn’t listen to your patrol leader, I’ll bounce down the launch tubes without your Vipers.  Is that thoroughly understood?  Okay.  Enjoy."




Starbuck was still grinning when he got back two centars later, his two cadets bubbling over with excitement at having taken for a few turns around the perimeter of the Fleet.  But he wasn’t thinking about cadets or patrols, but about his prospects for that evening.  He had a private room booked on the Rising Star, Apollo had conned his sister into taking Boxey and Starbuck was contemplating a good dinner with lots of ambrosa, and centars and centars of hot sex afterwards with the man who’d become his entire life.

He was particularly looking forward to the sex.

He was only marginally put out when he realised that the Galactica was on alert, letting it affect him only in that he hoped it wouldn’t spoil his plans for later.  He brought his two cadets in past the picket lines, noticing that there were double the usual number of picket ships and that the pilot of the ship who’d challenged them had sounded more than ordinarily tense, and came into a perfect landing on an Alpha deck that was bustling with activity.  Vipers were everywhere, being moved out of their huge hangars on overhead rails, and it took an experienced eye to see the order in what seemed like utter chaos.  The Alpha Deckmaster was in the centre of the deck, directing operations, and not one thing happened without he was aware of it.

"What’s up?" Starbuck asked as his ground crew chief opened the canopy, nodding towards the Deckmaster.  "Janus looks busy."

Jenny shrugged impatiently.  "I’m only the hired help around here, Bucko.  But we need to turn this ship around in about twenty centons, so get your butt out of it."

"I’m on it."

Starbuck drew the shreds of his dignity around him, dropping down to the deck level.  It was pointless arguing with Jen.  She always treated him like a first-yahren cadet suffering from an overdose of testosterone.  He waved his two cadets over to order them to the briefing room for a debrief, but turned when he felt someone touch his arm.  Still with his mind on the coming evening, he grinned a welcome at Boomer.

"Commander wants to see you, Bucko,"  Boomer said, grave-faced, grey, not smiling back.  "In his office, on the bounce."

Starbuck’s grin died.  Boomer wouldn’t quite meet his eyes.

"Trouble?"  His mouth felt dry as ashes suddenly, the taste bitter.

"He just said he wanted you up there, old buddy."

Starbuck knew then.  He pushed the knowledge away, refused to admit it, but he knew. 

Apollo was gone.

He shared one long, knowing look with Boomer, then turned away to walk blindly to the turbolift, walking through all the activity as if the running crews were all insubstantial ghosts, as if he couldn’t even see them. 

Starbuck was outwardly calm.  The two cadets who’d run to catch him up had no idea that his heart was hammering with the adrenaline rush that had his chest tight with tension, making him sick with a fear he couldn’t acknowledge in case it became reality.  He barely realised they were there, as oblivious to their excited chatter in the lift as to their surprised enquiries when he didn’t get off at the troopdecks with them.  For him the lift had only one destination. 

Tigh was waiting for him on the Bridge.  The colonel didn’t speak, just waved him into the Bridge office.  Starbuck noticed that Tigh’s expression was shocked and grieved, and was vaguely surprised.  Tigh and Apollo hadn’t really hit it off from the very beginning, the colonel more than a little insecure about Apollo and Adama’s relationship and suspecting that Adama was bringing in Apollo to supplant him.  Only the Destruction and Adama’s reliance on Tigh had begun to assuage the colonel’s anxieties.  It made, Apollo had said once, for an interesting dynamic in command meetings.

But Apollo was gone now. 

Starbuck knew before Adama looked up.  He saw how the commander was fighting for calm, fighting to hold back the tears.  Adama didn’t have to say it.

"How?"  Starbuck asked, calmly enough, from behind the barrier of clear ice that insulated him from the world. 

 

"Watch your scanners," Apollo ordered the two cadets who were flying one either side of him.  "And stay close.  Not that close, Dean!"  He took a fast evasive manoeuvre as the cadet on his right came in too far.

"Sorry sir," the cadet mumbled.

"What did I tell you the minimum safe distance was?"  Apollo demanded

"Fifty metres, sir," Dean said, sheepish.  "I got within thirty.  I won’t do it again."

Apollo grinned to himself.  "Well done for keeping an eye on your scanner anyway," he said, impressed that the cadet had realised how close he’d been.  "Janey, read me off the scanner information on the system we’re approaching."

Janey sighed and obeyed.  This was not her forte, which is exactly why Apollo had asked her to do it and not Dean.  He coached her through her reply with the patience that his cadets always got from him, helping her to see the points she’d missed. 

"Good," he said when she’d finished.  "We’ll take a look at the outermost planet first."  He froze suddenly as his scanner started jumping.  "Heads up!  We’ve got something interesting -"  Apollo stared at the scanner.  "An energy spike of some kind, from a position behind the outer planet.  See it?"

"Well, yes," Janey said doubtfully.  "What’s it mean?"

"Search me," Apollo said inelegantly.  "But we’re here to find out…" 

"Captain," Dean said.  "More of them."

"Ships," said Apollo, knowing they were in a first contact, and cursing the fact that he had two inexperienced cadets with him.

"They’re heading our way."  Janey’s voice was rising with excitement.

"Looks like maybe five or six, and they’re damned fast," said Apollo thoughtfully.  "Okay, listen to me carefully.  We’ve no idea who these people are.  This may be a friendly first contact, but then again it may not.  I don’t want either of you to do anything unless I tell you to, do you understand?   Be ready to get out quick.  If I tell you to run for it, you just do it.  No arguments.  Got your return course plotted in?"

"Yes sir," they chorused.

"All right.  Stay in close to me."  Apollo turned his Viper to face the approaching ships head on and waited.




How was simple enough, Adama had said.  Apollo had taken his two cadets out towards the nearest system.  Then they ran into trouble, fast-moving ships that attacked without warning.  Apollo had sent the two cadets back and turned at bay to face the ships alone, trying desperately to give the two kids a chance to get back, sacrificing himself to save them.

Starbuck had nodded, wondering why he felt so remote and numb.  He’d thought that this would kill him, but he was surprised at how calm and still he felt.  Once he’d heard someone say that with every loss, a part of the heart dies.  He had watched Adama’s grief as the commander gave way for a centon, knowing that for him, with this loss, everything had died.  There was nothing left to feel.

For the first time ever, Apollo had gone somewhere without him.

Adama had said that Apollo hadn’t stood a chance.  His voice had been quiet and dull, the only way he had been able to hold it all in as he’d told Starbuck that the cadets had called in as soon as they got into comms range, both almost hysterical about some black ships that jumped them without warning.  Adama’s voice almost broke when he’d said that Apollo sent them on ahead, got them out of the way, and stayed behind to try and guard their backs.

Starbuck had thought briefly of Zac.  Apollo had never forgiven himself for Zac, would never have let that happen again.  It made a queer kind of twisted, poignant sense that Apollo would have done everything he could to try and get the kids back.  He’d managed to say so, trying to make sense of Apollo’s sacrifice.  He’d not spoken aloud the thought that pounded in his head: He sacrificed me too.  He sacrificed me too…

Adama had thought of Zac too, he’d said, all the time he waited for a report from the reconnaissance flight he’d sent out to find his son.  All they’d found was wreckage.  At least some of it had been from a Viper.  Telemetry had confirmed that it was Apollo’s Viper.

Starbuck had nodded, an odd sense of detachment settling over him.  Somewhere, a long way away, someone was screaming, but Starbuck had managed not to hear him.  As long as he couldn’t hear, then it wasn't quite real, he could hold it all together.  Apollo would appear any centon, his ship a bit beat up maybe, but he’d be all right.  Apollo wouldn’t leave him alone.  Apollo knew what that would do to the screaming thing that Starbuck had to encase in ice to keep it a long way away, to keep it under control. 

He had found himself looking down, counting arms and legs and frowning.  He had the feeling that something so fundamental had been torn out of him, that he expected to see more evidence of it, blood and gore and guts, maybe.  It felt like someone had torn his guts out and was twisting them, slowly.  It felt like someone had torn his heart out.

Someone had.  Wherever Apollo had gone, he’d taken Starbuck’s heart with him, leaving only cold and grief and emptiness behind.  And far away, the screaming that fought to get out.

Adama had suddenly remembered Apollo’s son, still at school, still happily unconscious that he’d lost the father he adored.  Grey with grief and dread, he’d put his face into his hands for a micron, and Starbuck had seen that his hands - so like Apollo’s, so like the ones that had held him and pleased him - were shaking as Adama fought for control.

Starbuck had just watched him.  He couldn’t cry himself, not with everything frozen over the screaming thing.  The sense of isolation and detachment was growing.  Nothing mattered, not even the uncomprehending grief of Apollo’s father or, later, of Apollo’s son. 

Only one thing mattered.

Apollo had left him.




Confused, Starbuck looked up quickly when Adama spoke again.  The memory of that old grief so haunted him, that for a centon he couldn’t remember where and when he was.  He was dull with misery for Apollo, but whether it was now or nine yahrens ago… he looked intently at Adama, focusing on the older man’s face, trying to get his thoughts in order. 

"Well, I agree," said Tigh, in answer to whatever Adama had said.  "Seems to me we have two options.  Either Apollo has deserted, gone absent without leave, or the Mask is controlling him in ways we don’t understand."

Starbuck turned from Adama to study the commander instead.  Once more he wondered who had torn his heart out of him, why everything was so remote and unreal.  It was like the moment that Cassie, holding his hands in hers, had gently told him that Apollo was in a coma.  Starbuck’s heart had gone cold in his chest then, too.

"I hope to God he’s just gone AWOL," said Adama said tiredly, although every one of them knew that the thought of his son doing something so unexpectedly undutiful, so dishonourable, would have killed him if it wasn’t for the alternative.

"Me too - and if he has, I’ll nail him to the nearest bulkhead, but at least we’d know he was still -" Tigh broke off, shrugged.  They knew what he meant.  Still human.  He looked at Starbuck’s closed, expressionless face.  "Starbuck."

"Mmn?"

"One more time, Starbuck.  Let’s see if you remember anything more."

Starbuck forced his thoughts into some sort of order.  "Again?"

"For my benefit, Captain," said Anton gently.

"Oh."  Starbuck thought for a centon, then said in the same dull tone that Adama had used, "He said he remembered more about what happened on Dyss and that they’d all been deliberately poisoned.  That there were some strange Dyss, dressed all in black who’d watched him all the time, and that they came for him after they’d poisoned our people, and that someone else was there.  Someone Masked."

"That does not sound hopeful," said Anton.  "Are you sure about that?"

"It’s on the tape."  Starbuck had his face in his hands again, and his voice was muffled.  "Apollo said that the man - or whatever he was - was expecting him, would be waiting in some special place on Dyss.  Apollo said he was going back to find out what it was all about."

"He didn’t say anything to us about remembering more," Tigh said heavily.  "He was very careful to tell us how little he did remember.  What else has he been keeping from us?"

"There’s nothing to say that he’s always known," Starbuck said, defensive.  "He might just have remembered."

"Maybe," said Tigh, unconvinced. 

"It’s possible." Starbuck knew he was protesting too much, tried to tone it down.  "He’s been dreaming a lot the last secton.  I thought it was about Dyss, that he was remembering…"  His voice trailed off.  He wondered exactly what Apollo had been dreaming of, those nights when he’d woken shaking and crying in Starbuck’s arms.

"Maybe," Tigh conceded, still unconvinced.  "But it’s convenient that he remembered just in time for him to arrange this little side trip when you were leading the escort, knowing you’d never fire on him to stop him."

Starbuck said nothing, stared back at the commander, resenting the implication that Apollo had used him.  Knowing it was true, but resenting it all the same.

"I can’t believe that he’s been planning this all along," said Adama with more hope than conviction.

"He asked me to trust him," Starbuck said almost to himself, remembering Apollo’s earnestness on the flightdeck before they’d taken off.

"And do you?" Tigh asked dryly.

Starbuck flinched, but stared back until Tigh nodded and looked away.  As soon as Tigh’s attention was on Adama again, he hid his face in his hands again so that no-one would see his indecision and uncertainty.

Anton was silent for a centon, thinking.  "Despite how it might look, I don’t believe that the Mask is somehow controlling the colonel.  He showed no sign of that when we were much closer to the Enemy than we are now, and we watched him very carefully then.  Very carefully.  I’m much more inclined to believe that he thought, for whatever reason, he should go back to Dyss himself to find out what the Dyss were up to."

Adama gave the old man a look of almost pathetic gratitude and even Starbuck was roused to look up.

"I’m aware, as we all are, that he changes when he is Masked.  He talks of "us" and "we", when he’d talking about himself and the Mask."  Anton was still thoughtful, looking down at the ornate carved head of his cane as he twisted it in his hands.  "Most of the time he's being provocative, deliberately so.  I’m not Wilker and Salik or the fools on the Council.  I don’t believe that the Mask is sentient.  I don’t believe that it controls Apollo.  I don’t believe that he poses a threat to us.  He didn’t then, and I don’t believe that he does now.  I do believe that he is, perhaps, something more with the Mask than he was without it and what that is, is probably morally neutral, at best.  He’s proved over the yahrens that it isn’t threatening.  And I believe that sometimes he is deliberately provocative about the Mask and the Ship, and that he’s still very bitter and angry with us about what happened when he returned all those yahrens ago.  That’s hardly a threat or even very surprising.  God knows, I’d be bitter and angry in his place."

"Thank you, Anton," Adama said quietly. 

"But what I believe is immaterial," said the old man.  "What matters is what we make the Council believe.  Do we have anything at all to go on about where on Dyss he may have gone, where this special place is?"

"Well, we just might at that," said Tigh, and called up the data onto the computer screen at the head of the table.  He turned the screen until everyone could see it.  "Luckily Isometrics had kept the shuttle flight data records for future analysis.  I had Major Trevis run a fast check on it as soon as Apollo took off.  Oddly enough, the data crystal for the return journey has corrupted: no data."

"What about the backup?" asked Adama.

"A blank.  Trevis says she’s no idea how it could have happened.  Suggestive, don’t you think?  Someone was determined we wouldn’t find out much about how we got them back."

"Very interesting,"  Anton agreed.  "And the inward flight?"

"Nothing much on their flight in… except this."  Tigh pressed the button and watched their reactions.  They echoed his own when Trevis had shown him the recovered data.

They looked at the screen: Adama, Anton and Starbuck, all staring in disbelief...

"Pyramids?" said Anton at last, and even that wily old man sounded awed.

"Just like on Kobol," Adama said, and he was definitely awed.  "Pyramids!  Six of them."

Starbuck was struggling with it.  "What does that mean?  That the Lords of Kobol were there on Dyss?"

"Or the Thirteenth tribe!"  said Adama.  "Earth!  It might be Earth."

"I doubt it, if the information that Apollo and Starbuck got from the Ship of Lights, when that Iblis character was here, is right," said Tigh.  "Wrong configuration and wrong sort of planetary system."

"Oh.  Oh, yes.  You’re probably right,"  Adama agreed, dashed.  "But the tribe could have come this way and left these as markers."

"I don’t see that it makes any difference," said Starbuck, with a touch of impatience at Adama’s religious fervour.  "I mean, I don’t give a toss who built them.  I only care if that’s where Apollo’s gone."  He glanced at his wrist chronometer.  "He’s been gone four centars and that Ship’s bloody fast.  I’ll never catch him up, as it is.  I don’t want to waste any more time."

"Not just you," said Anton.  "A proper expedition, I think.  You will of course pilot it, Captain, taking President Adama.  You’d better take some ground troops too."

They turned to look at the old man.  He sat erect in his chair, carrying his age lightly, the deep set eyes, still a young man’s eyes, lit with amusement. 

"Bless the boy, but he’s given us the perfect excuse to go after him," he added.

"I don’t understand," Starbuck complained.

"Apollo has made it easy for us.  Don’t you see?  I’m not saying that he deliberately pointed us towards this, so we’d see the Pyramids and go after him, but I think he was willing enough to give us enough clues to use if we wanted to."  Anton looked thoughtful suddenly.  "I wonder if he meant it as some sort of test?  Who knows?  The point is that he’s given us the perfect story to tell the Council."

"What story?" Tigh asked, fascinated.

"That as he’s recovered, he’s remembered more about his time on Dyss.  Not what happened to him and the others - we’ll keep that to ourselves for the time being.  It’s pointless worrying the Council about that unnecessarily: their minds are small enough without cluttering them up with profitless baggage.  What he has remembered is the Pyramids.  Knowing their enormous significance to us for our journey he’s gone back to Dyss on our behalf to negotiate a formal investigation by you, Adama, to see if there are any clues in the Pyramids for us to help us on our journey.  As a leading Kobolian, and a former religious scholar, you’ll be best placed to lead this expedition - ah, but you might have to take a priest or two along for verisimilitude, or heaven forfend, some of the Council…"  Anton frowned, thought for a micron about that little problem, then nodded.  "Well, all we can do is try and avoid that.  We’ll tell them that the pyramids are places of religious significance to the Dyss too, and they’ll only agree to you and you alone going and looking at them, Adama, because you’re Apollo’s father and they’ll trust you because they trust him.  That would explain why he went on ahead, to talk to the Dyss on our behalf."

They stared at him.

"I think it sounds good," Anton said.  "This buys us the time we need.  You can get after him and either bring him back or find out what this is all about without worrying about the Council and any political fall-out here.  If the Council absolutely insists on sending representatives then I’ll try and swing it so that it’s one or two of the neutral ones, Solon maybe or Lady Damaris.  I might even go myself.  What do you think?"

They stared wordlessly.

"Perfect, I think." Anton smiled gently.  "Let’s call the Council together to tell them and get their entirely spurious blessing for the expedition.  You’d better be ready to leave within the centar."

"You’d lie to the Council for Apollo?" asked Starbuck, astonished.

"He amuses me," Anton said.  "And at my age, that’s a bonus.  I like Apollo.  I always have."

"You’d lie to the Council?" demanded Adama.  "For any reason?"

Anton smiled.  "I always lie to the Council, Adama.  Only, of course, I don’t usually come right out and call it lying.  I normally dress it up a bit.  I normally call it politics."







"What’s this all about, Starbuck?" Trent eased himself into the co-pilot’s seat of the shuttle.  "Where the hell is the Boss headed?"

"You heard the Council proclamation," said Starbuck.

"If they told me my name was Trent and I was Sagittarian, I’d disinter both my parents to get their sworn depositions before I’d believe it.  Bunch of worthless morons."

Despite himself, Starbuck grinned faintly.  "With one dishonourable exception," he said.

He thought back to the flightdeck, and the old man leaning on the cane that signified the frailty he used as camouflage, watching the shuttle lift off.  Anton looked fragile as a leaf, but Starbuck suddenly believed the old man would live forever.  He ought to live forever.

Trent, not as close to Anton, glanced back down the main compartment where Adama was talking to Councillor Solon and Boomer.  The Council had indeed insisted on sending a representative to Dyss, but Anton had been as good as his word.  He’d ensured that Sire Solon had been the sole appointee after a display of political manipulation that left Adama awed at the old man’s ruthless skill.

"Can’t think of one," Trent said now, with a slight scowl for Solon.  "And I can’t think why Apollo would suddenly be taken with religious visions either.  He never struck me as God-crazy enough to care what shape building the Dyss have scattered all over their deserts."

"He’s not that religious, but other people think it’s important enough to send him back." Starbuck looked Trent firmly in the eye.

Trent stared back, then shrugged.  "Balls, Starbuck.  But I don’t care if it gets me off that tin can and onto the ground where I belong."

"Mudbrain," Starbuck jeered softly, relieved to be able to change the subject.

Rivalry between Fleet and Infantry went back centuries.  So far as the Infantry were concerned, Fleet airheads were immature and over-sexed, lacking the brain power of a retarded louse, and the closest they got to anything dangerous was handling a knife and fork.  To Fleet, Infantry mudbrains were clods too stupid to grasp the intricacies of flying Vipers, fit only to be shot out of spaceships into the upper atmosphere of unpleasant little planets to fight on the ground - on the ground, yet! - when everyone knew that wars were won in space.  Mudbrains were obsolete.

Only the Destruction had put paid to that little debate.  The few survivors of each service had been forced to work together.  At first, acknowledging Adama’s authority only reluctantly, the few surviving infantry had been forged into a single company.  They were fully integrated now with the Fleet pilots they used to affect to despise.  Now the rivalry was friendly, carried out more in the spirit of maintaining an old, pleasant tradition and Trent would never hesitate about taking an order from Apollo or Adama.

"I’m aware that you airheads are afraid of the ground.  Scared you’ll hit it doing those silly aerobatics, I expect."

"Whereas you need the ground to trail those hairy knuckles against.  And that’s just the women."  Starbuck was happy to divert the conversation into other channels.  It left him enough to hide behind, to hide the heart-numbing anxiety.

"I heard that, Captain," said Trent’s second.  Gina was an old flame of Starbuck’s, one of the many he ran in tandem with Cassie and Athena in the time before he and Apollo had finally acknowledged what they felt about each other.

Starbuck gave her a weak smile.  "Something else for me to worry about then."

But in the scale of things, anything Gina cared to do to him wouldn’t even register, even though it was better that now he had something to do.  Since Anton’s intervention, Starbuck had felt a little better.  Anton had faith in Apollo - that in itself was a salutary lesson to the cynical Tighs of this world who tried to shake Starbuck’s faith and trust in his lover.  He was worried about Apollo, of course he was.  But he trusted him.  He did trust him.  He did.

But Apollo had to be so far ahead of them now.  Even at their best speed, they would take over a day to reach Dyss.  Apollo was probably already there, could be in danger from the Dyss who had already tried to poison him once, could even be dead.

Starbuck looked away out into the field of stars ahead of them.  The edges of the starfield looked as thought they were slipping and sliding into the band of coloured light that encased the shuttle, stars swirling into streaks of light.  Going super-light made the universe a very pretty place, he concluded, deciding to concentrate on that rather than himself.  Or Apollo.

Far better not to think about Apollo, and the feeling of hurt and betrayal Apollo had left behind him. 

Starbuck scowled, and hunched down in his chair, as if collapsing in on himself to hold in the fear and pain and despair.  He wrapped his arms around himself and leaned forward as if his gut ached.  He did trust Apollo.  He did.

Trent shook his head ruefully and retreated back to his troopers.  Boomer reclaimed his seat and put an arm around Starbuck’s shoulders. 

Starbuck barely noticed.  Forgetting the marginal comfort Anton had given him, his mind was taken up with only one thing.  Once more, Apollo had gone somewhere without him, leaving him bereft, numb with anguish and misery.

But this time it was deliberate.







Boomer looked up at the clear night sky: not a cloud, and the sky like black velvet, feeling almost close enough to be touched.  Beautiful, to see stars from a planet’s surface like this, to feel grounded again.  In over twelve yahrens in space with too few planet-falls, he’d almost forgotten what it was like to feel the ground beneath his feet, to feel a breeze against his face.  He liked it, despite the oppressive heat of the breeze and the sulphurous smell in the air.

"I think we may have sneaked in," he said, watching as the last of Trent’s troopers melted silently into the darkness.  "The scanners are clear, and it doesn’t look like their planetary defences picked us up."

"Uh-huh," Starbuck said without interest. 

Boomer gave him an impatient look.  He understood Starbuck, but he was getting a little tired of the martyrdom. 

They had landed in the lee of the largest pyramid of the six scattered across this level desert plateau.  It sat in the centre of the group of six, towering over their heads, black and massive against the sky.  From where they stood they could see another two of the remaining group.  The others were hidden behind the bulk of the central Pyramid. 

There was no sign of life.  Even Trent’s troopers were invisible in the dark.

"Lords, it’s a warm night," Sire Solon said from behind them, as he and Adama picked their way down the ramp, moving carefully against the reduced gravity.

Starbuck looked momentarily worried.  Solon was right.  It was a very warm, oppressive night.  "Apollo will have got here centars ago, when it was hotter," he said.  "I hope he’s okay."

Solon looked at him enquiringly.

"He doesn’t adjust too well to temperature extremes," explained Starbuck.

"Surely the Dyss will have taken that into account," Solon said reasonably.  He glanced around.  "No welcoming party?"

"Not yet," Boomer said smoothly.  "They may not be aware that we’ve landed yet."

"Perhaps we should wait in the shuttle," Adama suggested.  "It’s at least air conditioned."

"I’d rather explore," said Solon, looking about him wistfully.  "But I suppose that we’d better not, if they’re so sensitive about this site."

"No," said Adama.  "We’d be better waiting."

Solon sat down on the bottom of the ramp.  "I’m happy waiting here, where I can look at them.  They’re just like the ones at home."  He waved a hand at the pyramids.  "Much bigger, of course."

"Very like the ones on Kobol.  They were a similar size."

"I never got to the surface there," regretted Solon.  "I envy you that, Adama.  To have seen the tombs of the Lords of Kobol!  It must have been wonderful."

"It had its moments.  But, yes, to have actually seen them -"  Adama gazed across to the looming bulk of the pyramid before them.  "I wonder.  I wonder what we’ll find here."

"Apollo, I hope," said Starbuck sharply

"He’ll be here to meet us, surely?" asked Solon.

Starbuck shrugged and turned away, staring at the Pyramid. 

"We should come across him pretty soon,"  Boomer said into the sudden silence, then thankful for the diversion: "Here’s Trent."

"President Adama."  Trent saluted briskly.  "It’s all quiet, sir.  We’ve got an area interdicted to protect the shuttle."

"Good.  Sensors?"

"Set every twenty metres, sir.  Lieutenant Gina’s set up a command post in the shuttle.  All the sensor information is collated there."

"Any sign of Apollo?" asked Starbuck anxiously.

Boomer sighed quietly.  Any attempt to convince Solon that there was nothing wrong was being hopelessly compromised by Starbuck.

"Not directly, but I took a look over at the Pyramid."  Trent turned back to Adama.  "I found the colonel’s ship, sir.  It’s parked about half a klick from here, right up against the Pyramid base.  Looks like our decision to go for the central Pyramid was the right one."

"Great. We couldn't have searched all six," murmured Boomer.  "What now, sir?"

"We’ll go to Apollo’s ship, and see what’s there," Adama decided, and to maintain the deception with Solon he added:  "That’s where they may expect to meet us.  Captain Trent, lead the way please.  Minimum escort: we don’t want to alarm the Dyss."

"Done, sir." Trent signalled his top sergeant and the half dozen troopers standing with her.  "This way, sir."

Solon got slowly to his feet.  "I don’t suppose we could use the landram?"

"The sand’s too loosely packed for that, Councillor," said Trent.  "We’d have to dig her out before we’d got fifty metres.  It’s only half a klick."

"A short walk," said Adama, encouraging.  "Five centons."

"I’m twenty yahrens too old and about thirty pounds too heavy for floundering around a desert at night," Solon grumbled softly.

Trent’s tone was carefully neutral.  "The reduced gravity will take care of the extra pounds, Councillor."

"But not the excess yahrens, Captain.  Ah well, we must suffer for the faith."  Solon sighed and started in Adama’s wake, following the President across the soft sand.

"Stay close, Bucko," Boomer said, as he and Starbuck brought up the rear.  "I’d hate to lose you in the dark."

"Don’t worry." Starbuck seemed to have cheered up at the news that Apollo’s ship was close by.  "Not even I can get lost heading for something that big.  Gods, she’s a size.  If anything, I think she’s bigger than the one at Kobol."

"Well, all I saw of that one was the Cylon raiders bombing it," Boomer said, cautiously relieved at Starbuck’s more normal tone.  "You were the one at ground level."

"Yeah.  Being bombed.  Didn’t leave me much time for sight seeing." 

"Well, we can hope history is not going to repeat itself." 

"Yeah.  I’ve always had this objection to being bombed."

"Not totally unreasonable, I suppose,"  Boomer conceded.

"It’s the noise," explained Starbuck.  "Gives me headaches."







I was sleeping when they got to the Pyramid.

I hadn’t been fused with the Mask and the Ship for such a protracted period for a long time, not since I’d been first Masked.  And then I don’t think that I was sentient, in any real sense.  Just an organic processor for the Ship, something to pilot it, direct it, and under direction myself.  I have no real memories of that time.  Just a remembrance of cold and dark, and sometimes, just sometimes, a feeling of floating in space, seeing the Galactica in the far distance and knowing, somehow, that was home and turning towards it.

It had taken us almost eight centars to reach Dyss.  It had tired me.  The me underneath, I mean.  Apollo.

We came in over the equator, following the same flight path of the shuttle all those sectons ago.  Our sensors found the pyramid group instantly, and we angled in towards it.  The largest of the six was in the centre, the others grouped around it loosely.  But we could see through the sensors that the remaining five were subsidiary, there to protect the central Pyramid.  They hid the laser cannon and the protective force field net: we could see the power conduits for the defence grid, buried deep under the desert floor.  But the grid wouldn’t activate against us.  We were of the same kind, and the Mask was already sharing sensor data with the grid’s computers, signalling our approach, negotiating our passage.

We landed beside the Pyramid, in its shadow.  When we were still, it took us a few centons to disconnect.  We weren’t entirely sure that we wanted to.  There was something about inhabiting that sleek body of ours that was almost intoxicating.  We were so free and so powerful and it was odd to have arms and legs again.  Limited and limiting.

They were waiting for us, the black Dyss, a couple of dozen of them.  They’d been waiting there for us for sectons, Khaeyr told me when she greeted us.  We weren't surprised, either that she was there to meet us or that she was properly dressed now, all in black, as she ought to be.  We think we’d always known she was one of them.

That greeting was interesting.  They‘d gathered around the Ship after we landed, standing silent in the hot sun, unmoving.  They didn’t move until we got out of the Ship.  When we dropped down out of the cockpit they all threw back the hoods that had obscured their faces.  Every one of them raised his or her crest of feathery hair in that odd reaction they’d had when they’d first seen us, the Apollo part of us when he had landed at the spaceport near Dyss-the-city.  But this time they went further.  Each one of them flattened his or her hands and crossed their wrists.  Their hands, held palm outwards, looked like little wings.  Khaeyr was the first to raise her hands to the level of her eyes, then she leaned forward and pressed her forehead against the crossed wrists, followed by the others.  It was a strange, graceful gesture, elegant and stylised and beautiful.  And somehow reverent and submissive.

It meant something. 

It meant that we were more than welcome, more than honoured.  That we were revered.

Well now.  A little respect is flattering.

We didn’t bow back.  They didn’t seem to expect it.  But we didn’t hesitate to follow Khaeyr when she invited us to go to the Pyramid.  We knew there was no risk.

The huge square base of the Pyramid was a honeycomb of rooms and chambers, all pleasantly cool after the glare of the heat outside.  The chambers that Khaeyr took us to were comfortable, even luxurious.  We had to wait, she explained, for he was no longer there.  He had said that we would come, and they were to signal him when we arrived and he would return for us, but it may take a few centars.  Well, we had all the time there was.  We could wait.

Interesting, that they could call on their God so easily.  Or that he would respond.

We didn’t talk much with the Dyss, not even with Khaeyr, although she did tell us of her regret about the others.  We think that she meant it.  We think that the period of mourning the Dyss entered into was quite genuine.  We could have demanded explanations, but we’d rather wait and ask him.  They were his orders after all.

We did talk to them about what to do if we were followed, as we expected that we would be.  And then we spent a long time exploring the rooms, fascinated by the texts incised on the walls, with one text in particular, chiselled into the smooth-faced stone and enclosed in the outline of a huge obelisk topped with a representation of a rayed sun.  At the end of each ray was drawn a tiny human hand.  That text was compelling reading.

All the incised texts were of a later date than those that the Apollo part of us had seen on Kobol.  The pyramid there had been decorated with hieroglyphics, elaborate little picture-letters that hinted at a spacious, leisurely time when the artists could spend yahrens, maybe even centuries, decorating their Lord’s house.  The texts in this Pyramid were written more hastily, in hieratic, but the story they told was all the more absorbing for having been written at speed. 

Oh, the texts were in Kobolian, by the way.  The Apollo part of us took special lessons in Kobolian from an elderly priest in the sect, when our whole ambition was to be a scholar, an historian and archaeologist, dedicated to understanding our people’s past and rediscovering some of its secrets.  Well, that ambition went the way of many youthful things when we realised that our father expected us to follow him into the military, that duty and honour and the family’s tradition of service demanded that we defend our people against the Cylons.  Our task, it appeared, was to protect the people’s future, not worry about its past.

It had its own honour, but we and every other warrior failed in the duty.  But perhaps what we had learned about our past would be useful now, to redress that old failure.

When we’d had enough of reading the texts and we’d thought about what they said for a while, we drank more of the golden wine that we and Hannath had loved and Khaeyr showed us a place where we could be alone. 

We separated there, unMasked for a little while, because there was nothing to do but wait.  Nothing to do but sleep.

And dream.

But not of the dark and cold, not this time.  Instead I dreamed of Starbuck, holding me warm and close, protective and loyal and devoted.

Even in my dreams, I knew I’d betrayed him and that, this time, I had no right to forgiveness.

This time, I might not want it.







The Black Ship was silhouetted against the low horizon. 

"At last," said Boomer.

He was grateful.  Adama had been right about it being a short walk, but it hadn’t been a comfortable one, with him and Starbuck plodding along through loose sand that caught at their feet, slowing them down, until each step became an effort.  Boomer wiped the back of his hand against his forehead, stopping the sweat from stinging his eyes.  He’d always thought that nights in the desert could be cold, the thin air rapidly giving up the scorching heat of day, but this desert was heavy and humid.  Perhaps a storm was on the way.  He looked up at the sky: all clear.  Perhaps it was just that this desert was different.

"Interdict the ship, Charley," Trent said quietly to his sergeant, and as Starbuck and Boomer joined him, the cordon closed around them.

Adama peered anxiously up at the Ship.  "Have you checked it?" he asked Trent.

"As well as I can from down here with no way of reaching the canopy, sir.  If the colonel was still in it, he’d hear us.  He’s not there."

"He’ll turn up," Boomer said with a little sideways glance at Solon.

"Was any particular time arranged?" Solon enquired.

"No," said Adama.  "I expect they’re keeping watch for us."

"Very likely," Trent said, as Charley touched his shoulder.

"Incoming.  From the west, sir."

"I see them.  Stay alert." Trent He and the troopers were all heavily armed, lasers at the ready.  "I think they’ve found us, sir."

"The Dyss?" Adama couldn’t hide the surprise and chagrin in his voice. 

"Until we find out, I’ll be happier with you and the Councillor behind the Ship."  Trent held the laser rifle in his artificial hand, flicking off the safety catch with the other.  "Now."

It was an unmistakable order, and Adama didn’t hesitate about taking it.  Out here, on the ground, Trent was the expert, Trent was in command.  Adama caught at Solon’s arm and together they stumbled over the loose sand, to crouch behind one of the Black Ship’s wheel stanchions.  It offered nothing but derisory cover.  Starbuck and Boomer, weapons drawn, stood one on each side of them, straining to see against the darkness of the huge building that dominated the world.  In other circumstances, Boomer would have been amused at the thought of Adama and another leading councillor scuttling about the desert in this undignified fashion, but he was too nervous and anxious for amusement.

"I thought we were expected," Solon complained to Adama.

"We have to be sure," said Adama. 

Boomer shifted his weight to his right foot, feeling the weight of the laser in his hand.  Where in Hades was Apollo?  And who in Hades was this coming towards them?  Apollo himself?

There was a short strained silence while they listened.  But all they could hear was sand sliding down a dune with a faint hissing noise, and, very far away, the harsh coughing bark of some desert animal on the hunt.  It was very dark, moonless, with only the faint light of the stars edging the Pyramid.

"It’s too dark to see anything," hissed Boomer.

"Something," Starbuck said, a bare whisper.  "Something moving."

The troopers had backed up into a loose line ranged in front of the Ship.  They all carried laser rifles, every warrior squinting along the infra-red gun-sights, ready. 

"Targeting," Charley said softly.  "Targets acquired."

"Steady," Trent said, equally as quiet and calm.  "On my order only."

Boomer's heart jumped.  Tall figures melted out of the darkness.  A dozen maybe, in a group, all in black and hard to see in the faint starlight.  For a micron they stood and looked back at the troopers facing them.

"President Adama?"  one of them called.  "Is President Adama there?"

"Who are you?" demanded Trent.

"I am the lady Khaeyr of the Dyss.  There is no danger.  We mean you no harm."

A pause while Trent presumably assessed that.  Boomer thought that if they were attacking, to walk boldly up to the Ship in a group like that, offering an easy target, was pure folly.  Or diversionary?  .

"We are unarmed," Khaeyr said, patient in the face of their uncertainty. 

"That’s very reassuring," Trent said dryly, lowering his weapon and taking a step or two forward.  Not one of his troopers followed suit.  They were too well trained for that, remaining tense and ready, fingers steady on the firing mechanisms.  Until Trent ordered them to stand down, they’d remain on the alert.

"That was my intention," Khaeyr went on, apparently not recognising irony.  "You are, of course, expected."

"Apollo?" Starbuck asked instantly.

"He said that you might come here.  I am pleased to welcome you.  Is the President there?" 

Adama stood up, trying to look dignified and presidential, brushing the sand from his tunic.  "I’m here, my lady.  You’ve seen my son?"

"Yes, of course.  I am delighted to meet you at last, President Adama.  We have prepared more comfortable quarters for you."

"Apollo?"  Starbuck asked again, more anxiously.

Khaeyr looked at him thoughtfully.  "You will be Starbuck," she noted, then added:  "We have some special arrangements for you."

"Oh," said Starbuck, taken aback.

"Very special," she confirmed, and smiled.







I didn’t sleep for long.  The dreams were too uncomfortable, too pressing, and they made me sorry and remorseful, doubting myself again.  So I got up and reMasked, and we called for Khaeyr to come and tell us more about the Pyramid and who built it.  But she had gone, another of the Dyss told us.  The humans had come, and she’d gone to meet them, as we’d asked. 

The black Dyss told us, while we waited, about the time they’d colonised this world, and found the Pyramid and Dyss, and how they had moved their religious caste to the world they named Dyss, called themselves Dyss, dedicated themselves to caring for the Pyramid.  The whole of their territory, hundreds of star systems, was devoted to caring for the Pyramid.

Well, nothing we hadn’t expected.  We thanked the black Dyss and the  - what was he?  Priest?  Monk? Acolyte? - left us, as we asked.

We waited for a little while, knowing it wouldn’t be long.  He came in alone, as we’d asked, Khaeyr merely bowing him politely through the door.

Lords, but he was beautiful, seen through the Mask.  Every plane of his face, the line of cheek and jaw, edged with blue light, making his eyes bluer.  The Mask wasn’t aware apart from me... us; not truly sentient, but it made him more beautiful for Apollo to look at through the Mask’s "eyes". 

"Hello, Apollo." he said, with an attempt at casualness.

"You followed us, then."  We were sitting on the couch, and he came to join us.  We could sense his confusion, his fear. 

"Us?" he said, doubtfully. 

It always disturbed him, when we spoke of ourselves like that.  We always tried not to do that.  We should have to be more careful.

Then he added : "Slack sort of day.  I had nothing else to do," and tried to smile, but we knew how much we’d hurt him. 

Again.

"Dad too?"

He nodded.  "Outside, in the antechamber.  Khaeyr said that only I was to come in here."

"Who else is here?"

"Boomer, Trent and most of the infantry.  Oh, and Councillor Solon."

"Solon?"

"We couldn’t get away without him.  Anton came up with this story for the Council, to explain where you were and why we were going after you.  We told them about the Pyramid, that you’d gone to Dyss to negotiate a chance for us to examine it.  They fell for it, but made us bring Solon along."  He spoke quickly, eager to ensure we understood the fiction we’d have to maintain in front of the Councillor. 

It irritated us, that they’d thought they’d had to find excuses for us.

"Why not the truth?  That you thought I was what - deserting?  Under Enemy control?"

The smile grew even more strained.  "A bit hard to tell them what I don’t know, Apollo.  You tell me."

"I asked you to trust me," we said.

He nodded.  His tone was very sad.  "You did.  But that cuts both ways, Apollo.  You don’t trust me."

That stopped us short.  Was that it seemed like to him?  That we didn’t trust him enough, care for him enough to tell him the truth?  We… I looked at him for a centon, seeing more clearly than I had done for a long time.

He was looking tired and sad, hopeless and defeated.  And we’d done that to him.

Only a little while ago we’d been wondering if we needed anything human any more.  If we’d changed so much that we’d outgrown them.  To be honest, we’d wondered if we’d outgrown Starbuck.  Looking at him we knew just how blind and stupid, how arrogant we could be.  We’d never outgrow him. 

We reached up and unmasked, dropping the Mask onto the couch beside me.

Throughout the centon of blind silence, the memory of how he looked through the Mask remained.  He was getting older.  There were fine lines now around those deep blue eyes, the skin less elastic and youthful, and his hair was greying.  He was growing old with me, loving me - loving me, not us.  I had got used to him being there, unfailing, familiar, necessary.  When I turned and wanted him, Starbuck was always there.  When I needed him, he was always there.  He always had been.  Once he was all I had.  He was still all I wanted, but I still found it so hard to tell him, to explain that to him.  He gave me everything.  What did I give him in return?

I’d never outgrow him, the wonder at that beautiful face, never stop drowning in those blue eyes.  He was my anchor, my link to humanity.  If I was to stay human, I needed him.  And now I needed to convince him of that.

I took his hand in mine.  He let me, but his fingers didn’t curl around mine as they should, but lay passive in my hand.

"I’m sorry, Starbuck.  You’re right.  I think I’ve been so wrapped up in myself these last few sectons that I haven’t thought about you and what you need - "

"I didn’t say that," he said quietly.

"You should have.  It’s true.  And I’ve never really told even you everything."  I took a deep breath.  "I’m going to now, Starbuck.  This is important, something that I’ve kept secret since I came back.  I never told you before, or anyone, because I think if they’d have found out they’d have killed me.  They’d have thought that the threat they feared was real.  They still might.  But I’m telling you now so you’ll understand a bit better why I came here." 

I thought for a centon, aware of him watching me, wondering what I was going to tell him.  The truth.  That was what I was going to tell him.  He deserved as much.

"When I first came back, Starbuck, they started all those tests on me, Wilker and Salik and the K’h’n.  Remember?"

"I’m not likely to forget," he said dryly.  "Any more than you’ll ever forget"

I nodded.  "The first tests were pretty easy on me, but had an effect they hadn’t bargained for.  They tried hypnotic regression, to see what I remembered of the fight with the Enemy and being Masked.  They thought that I was so far under with the drugs they gave me that I wasn’t in control anymore, that I’d open up to them, not be able to stop myself from answering their questions, but that I wouldn’t be aware of what was going on.  They were wrong, on all counts.  I was still in control, I was aware.  And most of all, it made me aware of something in here -" I touched my chest with one hand.  "Something I hid from them then and all the time since.  A kind of coldness, an emptiness where once something had been."

"What do you mean?"  he asked, alarmed.

"The place where the Enemy had been, when I was nothing more than a re-animated data processor for the Ship.  The place where they had… had controlled me.  It was empty, Starbuck, and it’s been empty all these yahrens, but sometimes there’s something, a kind of calling, like something’s looking for me and that’s where they look.  When I hadn’t been down to see the Ship for a while, I’d feel it there, a little tug that said that the Ship was lonely and wanted me.  The same with the Mask.  I never wanted the Mask with mind or heart, Starbuck.  But I wanted it there, I wanted it with that empty space, because with the Mask and Ship it isn’t empty anymore."

"I don’t understand," he said miserably.  "Are you saying that the Enemy have been in there all the time, that it really wasn’t you that came back?"

"No!"  I said it with all the passion I could.  "No, Starbuck.  It’s me.  But it’s me plus something more." 

It was so hard to find the words to explain to him, without scaring him away from me for ever. 

"If this is meant to reassure me, Apollo, it isn’t working.  If the Mask and the Enemy aren’t controlling you through this empty space, what’s it for?"  He sounded stunned, shocked.

"They used to be there, Starbuck.  They took my heart, and they left me with this artificial pump, and artificial blood, and an implant in my head.  And when I was piloting the Black Ship for them they did control me.  I’ve no memory of that time.  I don’t think I was truly alive.  But something happened, and I got free of them.  They don’t own me any more.  The Mask doesn’t own me."

"But it fills up this empty space," he said, unconvinced.

"Sort of.  That little empty place inside me - it’s like having an extra organ, Starbuck.  A kind of connector.  Something that’s intended to be connected to the Mask and the Ship; something that reacts when I’m close to Enemy technology.  But where once that was a control over me, now it’s not.  It’s …...look. If you lost a hand or a leg, you’d always know that something was missing, wouldn’t you?"

"I suppose."

"Right.  Well, this is like an extra hand or leg; part of me now, integral.  Without the Mask and Ship it’s like something’s been amputated, cut away, missing.  And I miss them the same way you’d miss your leg; aware that something used to be there, but isn’t any more.  But they don’t control me any more than your hand or your arm controls you.  They just belong.  That’s all"

"And when they call you in that place, they can’t make you respond?"  He was still unsure, still incredulous.

"No.  It’s just the place where I’m aware of them, where they connect."

"Uh-huh.  And what else connects there, Apollo?"

Well, let no-one ever say Starbuck is stupid.  He hides behind some pretty dense armour, does my Starbuck: armour that’s light-hearted, cynical, shallow.  But he’s not stupid.

I nodded.  "You’re right.  The one who did this, who blinded me, he can call me there.  I’ve felt it over the last few sectons.  No words, just a feeling, but like he’s asking me what’s taking me so long to come back here, where he told me he’d be waiting for me."

"The Enemy."

"Maybe.  He was Masked, anyway.  Maybe the Enemy.  Maybe what these Dyss worship.  Definitely something to do with us, with Kobol.  But he’s the one with the answers."

"And he made you come here," Starbuck said.  "He made you, Apollo."

"I chose to come, Starbuck."

"Well, maybe you think you did," he conceded.

"I don’t know how I can convince you, Starbuck!"  This was getting frustrating.  I might have made a mistake, telling him everything.  I could almost feel him drawing away from me.  "When I came back, it was me, free.  It is me, free, Apollo.  But with more, with the potential for so much more."

"What?"

"That’s what I’m here to find out.  The Mask’s an enhancer, a data processor, a tool.  I’m learning to use it better, Starbuck, even though I’ve only been re-Masked for a couple of sectons.  Already it’s easier for me to use the Mask, to pilot the Ship.  It’s always been easy for me to hide what I am from Wilker and Salik, but now that’s effortless.  They don’t matter now, they can’t even begin to touch my defences."

"I don’t know what you mean." 

"I mean that the Mask can control the little sensors they put on me and can feed back false data to their monitors.  It always could, but it was harder for me to do it then.  Now the Mask does it without me having to even think about it."  He had to see what I was trusting him with.  "I’m… I’m sort of growing, Starbuck."

A short silence while he absorbed that, then he said carefully:  "Growing into what, Apollo?

"I don’t know," I confessed.  "That’s why I’m here, to find out.  But listen to me, Starbuck.  It won’t make any difference to us -"

"Of course it will, Apollo!"  A centon’s impatience, then the sad voice again.  "It already has."

"Only if you let it.  I’m still Apollo.  I’ll always be Apollo as long as you want me.  Your Apollo.  Yours, Starbuck."

"Really?" he said and his tone was so sad, so heartbreakingly sad, as if he was thinking of a memory of someone he’d loved very much, someone long dead, someone he still loved and grieved for, would mourn for ever.  He didn’t believe me.  He didn’t believe that I would still be his.  Maybe he doubted that I ever had been.

I had to find the words somehow, to reassure him.  "Well, you’re the one who keeps me human, Starbuck."

That got through.  I felt him stiffen, take a sharp breath, then seem to stop breathing.  I touched his face with my right hand, still keeping hold of his hand with my left.

"Without you, I would have gone long ago.  I’d have found a way of getting to the Mask and the Ship and I would have gone to find them, to find out why they did this and who and what I am.  And I think that once I’ve done that, once I make that choice to stay with them, there’ll be no going back.  But you hold me here, Starbuck.  For you, I’ll always be human.  I’ll always be Apollo.  As long as you’re here and you want me, you have more influence over me than the Enemy and the Mask could ever have."

He took a shaky breath, and his fingers tightened on mine.  "Do you mean that?"  he asked shyly.

"I mean it,"  I said, willing him to remember that I had voluntarily unMasked for him, that I was Apollo.  Apollo.

For a long moment he sat very still and very quiet, thinking about it.  I could only wait, only hope that he understood how important he was.

"Part of the problem is that I’ve never been sure," he said in a low voice, slow and thoughtful, thinking it all through.  "You know what things were like for me, Apollo.  I never had much when I was a kid, and that’s made me a bit insecure, I think.  I need something strong and stable, and I spent a long time looking for it.  I’d thought I’d found it with you.  Then the Enemy took you.  Since you came back, I’ve never been so certain, never been so secure."

"I know."

"And I haven’t forgotten what you felt when you came back: that everyone you’d loved abandoned you.  I know you stopped believing it when people told you they loved you, even me, and I know how hard it is for you to say what I need you to say."  Another long pause, then he laughed shakily.  "You come up with some unusual ways to say it.  Did that mean what I want you to mean?"

I nodded. 

"No more secrets?"

"None.  I’ve told you the big one, because you were wrong, what you said.  I do trust you, Starbuck.  I’m just not very good at saying it and showing it."  I remembered suddenly, something my father had said when Starbuck had left me.  "I suppose Dad’s right.  We’re very alike, me and him.  I can never quite believe he cares, because he finds it so hard to show it.  I find it hard too, harder still since I came back.  But I do care."

"Yeah, you’re like your Dad,"  Starbuck said, and I thought he was smiling now.  "Thankfully, though, you took your looks from your mother."

"Oh?"

"She was very beautiful too."

"So are you.  God knows, so are you."

He was very close now, and he didn’t object when I put my arms around him and pulled him in closer still.  I leaned back on the couch, pulling him with me.  The Mask rolled off onto the floor.  I didn’t worry about it.  It couldn’t get damaged and it would be there when I wanted it.

"Keep me human, Starbuck."

 

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