Remember thy Creator…Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Ecclesiastes 12







TIME PAST

Ceremony had always been a part of his life. 

It was one of the drawbacks – or maybe one of the bonuses – of being born into a devout High Kobolian family.  He had never been sure which.  The whole Kobolian thing was about rite and ceremony.  Everything in life had a ritual attached to it: birth, name days, saint's days, first day at school, last day at school, puberty, graduation, betrothal, marriage, death … everything.  They probably had a ceremony for stubbing your left big toe on the second Fourth Day of the sectar and the ceremony would be different if you were three centimetres taller and had blond hair.  Apollo had always thought that if anyone ever printed out the entire list, with every order of service, you’d end up with a book so thick that you could probably commit murder if you hit someone with it.  Or at least give them a concussion.

His earliest ever memories were of ceremonies, of dawns spent in the tiny chapel in the courtyard of their house to say prayers with Mama and the servants, waiting for the suns to come up to greeted with prayers and song, and of sunsets farewelled in the same way; his entire day bracketed by ritual.  He hadn't resented it then.  It had just been the way things were.

He had been too young to remember the birthing ceremony for Athena, but he'd been six when Zac was born and it had remained lodged in his memory: the thin high voice of the priestess his father had hired to sing the litany as Zac pushed his way into the world had echoed through the house, making Athena, only two yahrens old, shiver into his side and huddle close.  He'd loved it, the sound the priestess had made, her voice like silver as it had glided into cadence after cadence.  The soft richness of the Kobolian tongue had meant nothing to him then, but something inside him had been satisfied by it and pleased.  It had sounded right.  The ringing of dozens of silver bells to mark Zac's first cry had made Athena forget she was frightened: she had laughed and clapped her hands when, later, their father had brought Zac to meet them and Zac had brought with him, as a present for her, a sistrum of carved, dark wood threaded with tiny bells and silver beads.  She had driven Apollo and everyone else in the house mad with it for the next few days. 

By the time Zac was born, Apollo had been old enough to go with his mother every tenth day to the High Service at the Chapel.  Osaiya was the richest part of Caprica City, a thin enclave of big houses built onto the cliff above the ocean, and its Chapel was as rich and decorative as the people who attended it; all carved wood and gilt, deep forest green and scarlet.  It had been very beautiful.  He'd sit on a polished wooden pew so high that his feet didn’t reach the floor, swinging his legs and watching what the priest was doing in front of the altar.  Father Diomedes had sung in Kobolian too, like the priestess had for Zac.  All the Litany was in Kobolian, every prayer and every hymn, and slowly over the yahrens Apollo had grown to understand what it meant.  Puzzling over it and working out the meaning had got him through many a long service without complaint.  When he was older, and was being taught the old language by real scholars, and when his passion for history and archaeology meant that he took learning the language very seriously indeed, Apollo had whiled away the services subjecting the oblivious Father Diomedes' accent to silent, and resentful, critique.  At that age he'd never heard of displacement, but he had practiced it with some skill.

And if he'd learned to dislike the ordinary observances and services, to resent the centars he had to give up to sit in chapel, to treat each hymn and prayer with cynicism and to wrinkle his nose against the pungency of the incense, he had hated, with a passion, those days when the ceremony revolved around him.  Hated it.

But still, he'd come to think that a lifetime of enforced religious observance had acted a little like exposure to a virulent disease: he thought that it had inured him to surprises of the ceremonial kind.  He had figured he'd suffered through the worst that could be thrown at him and he'd come out the other side intact.  He was immune to the infection.  He could go to services and be unmoved; he could watch ceremony and rite, listen to the prayers, and they'd mean no more to him than the beauty of the music; he could watch the priests and the acolytes with their cymbals and sistrums, and the only emotion it evoked now was a faint amusement as he remembered the little Athena creating her own versions of the litany with the sistrum their father had given her to ease the pain of no longer being the baby of the family.

Much later, he had come to think that sistrum was the symbol for all the relationships in their family: riddled through with the demands of religion and, while capable of music, more often in their clumsy hands producing little more than discordant jangling.





TIME YET TO BE

A lifetime of ceremonial, though, will not have prepared him for this one.  He'll sit in the dark, listening to the voices of his four warriors, each chiming one after the other with their list of words, with a rattle and bells between, and on each round he'll make a decision and a choice. 

North, South, East, West…

Well I don't know, which one should it be?  South, maybe.  Because when he was a child, they all went to the south each yahren to Grandfather Noah's house, and he had been freer there than anywhere in his life before or since, and Athena still thought her big brother hung the stars for her, and Zac had been a chattering little menace whom he loved and resented and protected in equal fierce measure?  That will do.  It will be as good a reason as any for making a choice.

So South it will be.  Bojay's voice.

He'll think about worse choices that he's made.  He'd chosen to leave Zac behind and try to save the fleet.  He'd chosen to accept Serina's decisions to learn to pilot a shuttle, and then learn to pilot a Viper.  He'd chosen to marry her in the first place when really all he'd wanted was Boxey, his chance at redemption by loving and protecting another little chattering menace to replace the one he'd failed at Cimtar.

The rattling will sound again, overlain with the noise of little bells, and the voices will intone again.  The rattling sound will be horribly familiar.

Night, Dawn, Noon Dusk. 

He'll listen hard for their voices this time: Boomer, Sheba, Bojay, Starbuck—that will be the order.  Boomer he trusts with his life; he's beginning to like Sheba despite the handicap of her father's treason; Bojay he's not sure of, but the man is competent at what he does; and Starbuck… well, Starbuck is Starbuck.

This, he will reflect, is the very first multiple choice ceremony he'd ever heard of.  It will worry away at him, which choice he'll make each time.  So much will depend on it.  More lives will depend on it, the well-being of the fleet will depend on it.  He's used to responsibility, but this will disconcert because it will be so nonsensical, so lacking in rationality.  He will only have time to react, not reason.  He'll not be able to work out what the right answer should be each time, he'll just have a micron to react and make his choice before the bell will sound for the next one, and all he will know is that the wrong choice will be if he makes no choice at all. 

He'll choose Sheba this time, in memory of all those dawns spent in the family chapel, listening to the little bells there.

Rattle and bells.

Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn.

He'll choose Boomer.  Caprica was glorious in winter.

Apollo knows that he's never been any good at this sort of stuff.  Starbuck might be able to ace things like the psychometric testing that the Academy had constantly thrown at them, but Apollo had laboured over them and had always come away thinking that all the tests did was show what an inadequate sort of personality he had.  Starbuck would be better at sitting here in the dark, making choices he didn't understand.  Starbuck has good instincts and Starbuck makes good choices.

And so now, after choosing one thing for each of the others, he'll listen for Starbuck's voice, and choose that now and every other time, and not question why he trusts to that above everything else that will be offered to him.

Auriel, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and then Law, Light, Life, Love.

Yes, indeed.  That will be the choice to make. 





TIME WAS

"But what do they want me to do?"

"I don’t know," said his father.  He shifted in his seat at the head of the table and in any other man, Apollo would have thought it was from unease, but Commander Adama did not do being uneasy.  "I've been reassured that you won't be harmed in any way, but the Protocol Commissar to the Hierophant hasn't been explicit about what the ceremony involves."

"The Protocol Commissar to the Hierophant," repeated Apollo.  He stared at his father for a centon.  The Commander stared back, his expression bland, before lifting one shoulder in a slight shrug.  "They have a Protocol Commissar?  And a Hierophant?"

"So it seems.  The Hierophant's full title translates as Hierophant of the Wheel of the Votive Sacrament, whatever all of that may mean.  At least part of her role appears to involve overseeing alliances with other worlds.  The Commissar seems to be the one who deals with the details of handling visitors."

"You couldn't make all that up if you tried."  Apollo had to choke back a grin, despite everything.  "Well, I wouldn't mind seeing their job descriptions.  Sounds more fun than mine."

The Commander took a sip of his tea, his mouth turning down in a small moue of distaste.  The grimace was probably because the tea was cold, or the steward forgot  the sweetener, or perhaps Apollo's light-hearted remark grated—the Commander had never been particularly responsive to frivolity even before he took on the burden of the remnant of their people.  "Our intelligence on the Krist is very patchy and incomplete.  We don't have a lot to go on other than what they're telling us and what we've been able to observe by monitoring their news and vid networks.  The anthropologists have deduced that the Krist are relatively open to contact with other races and they appear to have a great many alliances in this sector of the galaxy.  The Commissar explained that because we're such strangers with no alliances of our own here and no mutual agreements or contacts with any of their existing allies, the Hierophant wants to… to test us, I suppose; to test someone who represents all of us.  It doesn't seem that unreasonable."

"You mean, test me."

"Yes."

"I don't like the sound of this.  Why me?  I mean, won't there be a Council delegation going there to start the trade negotiations?  Why not whichever Councillor you finger for leading that?"

"They don’t want a diplomat," said the Commander.

"Well, if you're sending me, they damn well won't be getting one."  Apollo took a mouthful of his own tea.  It was indeed cold, but he didn't care; it was still refreshing after a day on the troopdecks.  He let his mouth twitch into a grin, to relieve the tension.  "Sire Anton is trying to civilise me, but he's working against the grain here."

"And this is news?"  His father managed a cool smile.  "He tells me that he believes that he's making progress in what he calls 'teaching you some political realities'.  I can't say I've noticed."

There was no sting in the tone, not really, but Apollo wondered if the familiar criticism lay underneath it: You can't be politically naïve, Apollo.  You'll command this fleet one day and you have to learn how to play the game.  He preferred to think that he wasn't naïve, just too honest to be a good politician.  He'd never liked games.  "We should send Anton," he suggested.  "He'd love every micron of it."

"If they don't want a diplomat, I'm sure they won't be able to cope with a politician.  And Anton is the essence of being a politician.  No, Apollo, they want you."

"Why?"

"They want—" His father paused.  "Look, don't take this the wrong way, Apollo, but they want someone more … more representative of … well, they want someone ordinary."

Apollo laughed, despite himself.

The Commander's mouth curved into a brief smile, something more genuine than the last one.  "You know what I mean.  Someone who isn't either a member of our government or a career diplomat."

"You mean, someone who isn't used to lying for a living." 

His father closed his eyes for a micron and indulged himself in a tiny, impatient sigh.  "I see that Anton still has some way to go.  The Krist appear to believe that career politicians and diplomats are too schooled in keeping their reactions hidden for them to make good subjects for this ritual."

"I'm a warrior, Dad.  And I'm not exactly Sire No-name from down in the depths of one of the cargo ships.  I mean, I'm part of the system as well.  I may not play in the political sandbox willingly but I do know it's there.  And I'm trained to withstand interrogation.  I don’t think that I'm quite the—" Apollo paused, frowning. "—the social tabula rasa they're looking for."

"They understand that what we're offering is a military officer.  They accept that I'm not going to drag some Sire No-name out of one of the ships and offer him up for whatever they have planned.  But still, you aren't a politician, Apollo, or trained to act a part.  You're a sort of compromise candidate."

"Very reassuring," said Apollo, in tone he felt would make Anton very proud.

"It's reassuring that you're trained for first contacts.  Actually you do first contact very well."

Apollo pushed down the little flicker of warmth at the unexpected praise.  "I know I do.  But then, the only ritual involved with first contact is drawing the metaphorical line in sand and shaking our spears so they understood that attacking us would be a very bad idea."

"I think the Krist got that message."

"I hope so, sir.  But that's why we then send in the diplomats, to smooth over the line in the sand and make sure we get the trade agreements we need.  That isn't something I do very well.  I'm better with the metaphorical sand and spears."

"Councillor Solon's trade delegation will be going down to Kristach with you, of course.  As soon as the ritual's complete, they'll start negotiations."

"You really haven't picked up any hints at all about what this involves?  Is it religious?  I haven’t been to church for a long time."

"I have noticed."

"Well, all I seem to do there is spend my time at memorial services.  It takes the gloss off religious ecstasy, you know, all those funerals."  Apollo took another sip of tea, but it wasn't enough to stop him from another little jab,  "Last one was for Lieutenant Menor, and you might remember the Chaplain telling us that all this is the Lords' way of testing us.  Just like that Hierophant, then."

"It may be that—"

"I'd find that a lot more convincing if the tests hadn't involved the destruction of millions of people and our entire civilisation.  That was a bit… a bit wasteful."

"Apollo," said his father, more gently than Apollo actually expected. 

Apollo shrugged that away and after a micron or two, got back to the Krist, his anger tamped down as quickly as it had appeared.  "So, any ideas about will this involve?  Drugs or something?  Chants?  Singing?  It had better not be singing; they won’t like that.  Or sacrifice.  I draw the line at killing goats or chickens."

"I genuinely have no idea," said his father.

Apollo stared at him.  "You're taking an awful lot on trust, and yet you still agreed to it?  Just like that?"

The Commander got up and walked to the viewport to stare at the stars outside, keeping his back to Apollo.  His tread was heavy.  "No.  Not just like that."

Apollo watched him, frowning.  The old man's shoulders weren’t quite so squared as usual and he looked tired suddenly.  "Oh," said Apollo.  "Trouble."

"Yes, trouble.  I'm afraid it’s bad trouble, too.  We desperately need to trade with them.  What I'm about to tell you is classified, Apollo."

Apollo nodded.

"Production on the second agri-ship has stopped completely.  So far as we can tell, a past shipment of… of something—seeds, fruit, we don’t know what—introduced a virus.  The latest crop wilted overnight and had to be destroyed.  They've had to empty every hydroponics tank.  Everything was toxic."

"But… but what happened to the decontamination procedures?  The containment rules?  How in Hades could that happen?"

"We don’t know.  We don't know how the ship was infected.  The agri-scientists think that the virus may be been there for sectars, but dormant and harmless until something triggered it.  We don’t know what that trigger might have been."

"Or how much contaminated food got into the system before the virus made itself apparent."

"No.  We don't know that either.  Doctor Salik is monitoring for any health problems, of course."

"There seems to be a lot we don't know.  What about the other two agri-ships?"

"No problems so far.  They're being monitored very carefully, of course."

Apollo shook his head.  "Equine," he muttered.  "Stable door."

"Quite.  The agri-scientists have been spoken to about their working practices."  The Commander came back to his seat and favoured Apollo with that thin smile again.  "They did not enjoy the experience."

"Good."

"We need all three ships at full capacity, if we're to keep our people fed.  You'll remember how difficult it was when we had reduced crop levels from Agriship One after the damage Iblis caused, and how long that took to repair."

"Things were tough," acknowledged Apollo.

"Yes, indeed."  The Commander clasped his hands on the table top and gazed down at them.  "It's not hopeless.  The agri-scientists are confident that they can bring the ship back on line once it’s been decontaminated, but it will take about three sectars before it's fully operational again.  We'll have to start rationing food very soon and things will get very, very tight if we have to wait for three sectars before we're back up to full production."  The Commander paused and his mouth tightened into the hard disapproving line that took Apollo uncomfortably back to childhood and various (rather mild) youthful indiscretions.  "And things will get very, very tense."

Apollo got that without being told.  He looked over to the viewport, although all he could see was faint dots of light against the darkness; the other ships were too distant in the dim starlight to be visible shapes.  But the ships were out there, full of bored and anxious refugees with little real work or recreation to occupy them.  More than a hundred thousand of them, an awful lot of whom had had an entire yahren to stop giving thanks for their survival and an entire yahren to cling hard to their anger and depression over the Destruction.  He couldn't blame them for that.  He was still angry and depressed about the Destruction himself.  "They're tense enough already.  Some of those ships are powder kegs, just waiting for a spark.  If we ever have to go onto them these days, I send warriors in groups of five or six." 

"Yes.  It's already hard for Security to keep order.  Our only hope of avoiding real unrest is successful trade.  The Krist are the only civilisation in this quadrant we can trade with.  Sensors haven't been able to find anything else for four or five star systems in any direction."

The Commander allowed him to brood over it all for a few centons.  Apollo finished his tea in silence, carefully putting the cup back into its saucer, lining up the pattern precisely.  "So what that all means is that I don't have any choice.  Too much is riding on this ritual, whatever it is."

"No, there's no choice.  I'm sorry, Apollo."

"What if I mess it up?"

His father touched his arm, patted it awkwardly.  "I daresay that I don't say this often enough, but I rely on you and you've never failed me yet."

Except at Cimtar, with Zac.  And Kobol, with Serina.  And home, with Mama and countless millions.

Apollo nodded to acknowledge the unexpected approval.  Twice in one conversation had to be a record.  "Do I have to do it alone?"

The Commander's hand stilled, but he didn't take it away.  It rested heavy and warm on Apollo's forearm.  "From what little the Commissar did tell us, the ritual itself has to be just you.  Yes, I'm pretty sure about that.  But you're allowed to take with you four supporters—indeed, the Krist have asked that you bring them with you.  They have some peripheral part to play but—"

"But we don't know what.  I got that bit, Dad.  Starbuck and Boomer, for definite."

"Of course."  There was amusement in his father's tone now.  He gave Apollo's arm one final pat and a little squeeze.

"I wouldn't take anyone else in their place.  I'll think about the other two."

"Maybe some of our ex-Pegasus pilots, Apollo.  I know you trust Starbuck and Boomer implicitly.  The Pegasus people need to think that you… that we trust them just as much."

Apollo managed to contain the snort.  "You mean you do want me to lie for my living?"

"Apollo."

He shrugged. 

"They've had a difficult transition but they are settling in," said the Commander, in full Commanderly mode.  "You're the one managing that and you know what has to be done to integrate them.  You're doing well with them, but we need to do more to settle them  You're the historian in the family.  You know the value of the symbolic gesture."

Apollo couldn't argue with that.  Sometimes he thought that his entire life was symbolic of something—he just wasn't sure what.  "All right.  You have a point.  It will have to be Sheba and Bojay.  They're the leaders of the Pegasus lot."

"Very well."  The Commander glanced at the chronometer on the wall above his desk.  "Mission briefing in one centar, Captain.  Bring all four of them.  And Apollo?"

He paused on the threshold.  "Sir?"

"I'm sure that the only sacrifice expected of you may be of a little dignity.  Nothing more.  I wouldn't sacrifice you, you know."

Apollo smiled at him with amusement and, oddly, real affection.  "Yes you would," he said.  "If you had to."



The relationships jangled.  They rarely sang.





TIME YET TO BE

If he gives it more than a passing thought, Apollo will put money on the Protocol Commissar being a neat, balding man in his late middle age, with precise, fussy manners, a fluting voice, and small hands and feet.  The hands will probably flutter as he talks.  He'll wear something appropriately ceremonial; a uniform, perhaps, in scarlet or black with a lot of decoration and looped gold braid.  Everything will have to be just so.  He'll probably be all too fond of his mother.

But Apollo will have to tell himself that he really should stop thinking in stereotypes.

Because the Commissar will prove to be of his own age, or even younger, his face smooth and golden, the skin almost as perfect as a child's.  Everything about him will be the colour of clear honey.  His hair and eyes will be the tawny golden brown that will remind Apollo of the huge sleek felines from equatorial Caprica, their faces framed by rough manes. The Commissar too will be as leonine and even his hair will look like a mane: waist long, it will be stiffened and held away from his face before cascading loosely down his back.  He'll stand two metres high in his stocking feet, and his boots – military type boots, Apollo will notice – will make him seem even taller.  His uniform will leave his arms uncovered; and Apollo will not be able to help noticing their muscular, beautiful shape. 

Although Apollo will try.

The Krist will not shake hands in greeting.  Instead, the Commissar will carefully plant his sword in the ground at his feet, where it will stand quivering, and will take a centon to stare each one of them in the eyes before bowing, his hand over his heart – assuming his heart is in the same place as a human's.  He'll bow to Apollo alone, the distinction between Apollo and the others obvious.

"You are welcome, Querant," he will say, his voice as golden as he.  "You are most welcome."  He'll glance only briefly at the rest of the delegation before his gaze returns to Apollo, but he will add, politely, "And all who come with you."

Apollo will not be concerned and affronted about singled out, not this time.  Out of the corner of his eye he'll able to see Councillors Solon and Herat ruffling indignant feathers at their relegation to mere hangers-on, and that will be something he can cherish.  Instead, he'll smile politely at the Commissar and be almost staggered by the brilliant smile that he'll get in return.

Councillor Solon might feel the need to re-establish the supremacy of the Council over mere military officers and make sure that the Commissar understands just who was in charge here.  But if that's the case, then the Commissar will be gracious and, as soon Solon has stopped speaking, he'll nod that golden leonine head and come back to Apollo.

"It will be my pleasure to escort you into our city, Querant," he'll say, pulling his sword free of the ground and sheathing in an easy movement that will make the muscles in his arm ripple.  The skin of his arm will be as smooth as his face, and Apollo will notice that it's the same even golden tone.

Apollo will try not to notice.

Apollo will have to moisten a dry mouth, and nod.  He'll be very courteous and thank the Commissar for his attentions.  The Commissar is very likely to be even more attentive as a result, and Apollo won't quite know what to make of it.

"Querant?"  Starbuck will ask, quietly, undercover of them sorting out their baggage and locking up the shuttle.

"One who's asking questions."

"One who searches for answers," the Commissar will say, looming suddenly at Apollo's shoulder.  "The one who will learn of the Mysteries."  He'll give Apollo the brilliant smile again.  "We honour such a one, greatly.  Come."

He'll tuck one bare golden arm through Apollo's and lead him away, towards the waiting transports.  The hand that will rest on Apollo's forearm will be large and warm, and the Commissar's fingers will massage the muscle gently.  It will surprise Apollo how many people will seem to feel the need to squeeze his arm that day, but he won't protest.  Glancing over his shoulder he'll see more ruffled Council feathers and more than one hastily-subdued flounce, but what will surprise him most will be the twin expressions on Sheba's face and Starbuck's. 

They will both look annoyed.





TIME WAS

He kicked his kitbag under the shuttle's front seat, pushing it firmly out of the way.  "Who's driving?"

"Me and Sheba drew the short straws."  Starbuck followed suit, pushing his gear under the seat next to Apollo's and dropping into it bonelessly.  He blew out a long breath, wriggled his backside against the padded cushioning and smiled.  "Oh man.  Comfy."

"You usually pilot the ship from right up front, Starbuck.  Your arms aren't going to reach the controls from here."

"You misunderstood, Captain.  Boomer and Bojay are the lucky bastards who get to fly.  Me and Sheba have to sit here and keep you company while you worry your little head about whatever it is the Krist have planned for you.  You know, you're antsier than a man with a crotchful of Corellian bed lice."

"Very amusing."  Apollo settled in.  He twisted around for a micron to watch the two Councillors' aides squabble over whose principal got which seat in the back of shuttle, while the Councillors looked on and pretended not to care.  Sheba stepped over Starbuck's outstretched legs and his, taking the seat on his other side.  She gave Apollo a tight little smile that he supposed was intended to be supportive.  He slumped back into his seat and folded his arms over his chest.

"I don’t like the idea of going into this blind," said Starbuck.

"You won’t be going into it.  I will."

"That's not much better, to be honest."  Starbuck used his quirky little smile, the one that some people found so charming, but it didn't reach his eyes.  "I've at least got the social skills to carry it off with panache.  You'll fall over your own feet or something and probably start a religious war."

"The ceremony could involve just about anything," said Sheba.

Well thank you, Siress Bloody Obvious.  With an effort, Apollo stopped himself from rolling his eyes and forced a grin.  "Yeah.  It bugs me, too, not knowing."

Starbuck didn't bother stopping himself from the eye-rolling, but Sheba ignored him.

"I can't believe the Commander agreed to this without knowing more," she said.  "The potential for harm or getting it wrong is just immense."

"It's the potential for humiliation that worries me," said Apollo. 

"It would," said Starbuck, grinning.

Sheba's mouth twitched into another of those would-be supportive smiles.  She'd lost some weight since Cain had vanished, Apollo noticed; the thin lips and nostrils made her face look sharp.  Starbuck had said only the other day that she'd be hatchet-faced by the time she was forty, and Apollo thought that he was right.  If a little unkind.

"Do you think it might be like a Kobolian service?" she asked.  She put a hand on Apollo's arm and squeezed, just like his father had done earlier.  "You'll be all right with that, wouldn't you, if it's all choirs and robes and singing?"

Apollo sighed.  "Don't talk about singing.  Or robes."

"It may not need clothes at all," suggested Starbuck.

If it weren't for a lifetime's training in restraint, Apollo would have groaned aloud.  He tightened his arms across his chest and dropped his chin until he was staring at his boots.  Trust Starbuck.

"If it were me and knowing my luck," said Starbuck, so complacent that Apollo really, really wanted to boot him out of the airlock, "it'd be a sex ritual and they'd be so overwhelmed by how good I am, that they'd want to keep me."

"We'd let them," said Apollo.  "In fact, we'd probably beg."

Sheba giggled for some reason.  She probably thought that it was charming and girlish.  Apollo thought it was a bit silly.  Starbuck rolled his eyes again.



The accommodations were more than good, they were sumptuous.  An entire floor of the building—what it was wasn't clear, hotel or palace or government house—had been given over to them, and if the Commissar's men watched the elevators and stairwell ("To ensure that you are not disturbed, Querant," the Commissar had said, innocently), well at least their prison, if prison it was, was a luxurious one.

They congregated in the main living room for supper and to talk.  Boomer and Sheba between them had made more than one pass over the room with sensors, but hadn't found any evidence of listening devices or cameras.  But still they gathered in a tight little group and spoke quietly.

Not, Apollo thought, that they had much to say.  The usual speculation about things such as power sources and industrial base, of course, and wouldn't it be helpful if the next time they did this they jettisoned one of the Councillors aides—or a Councillor, Apollo wasn't picky—and brought along a scientist instead, so that he could dispense with the uneducated guesses and have a discussion that wasn't seven-tenths guesswork.  Although, to be fair, Boomer was more astute than most when it came to this sort of assessment and Bojay wasn't too bad either.  He and Boomer had quite a lively discussion going off to one side with Solon's aide, who didn’t appear to be completely mentally deficient.  It would be funny if the Pegasus and Galactica contingents bonded over the prevalence (or not) of fossil fuels, but Apollo guessed that people had bonded over less likely things and anything that worked and got his father and Colonel Tigh off his back was fine by him.

"You okay?" said Starbuck.  "You didn't eat much."

"I'm not that hungry."

Starbuck nodded.  "You want it over with."  He looked thoughtful, rubbing a long forefinger up and down his nose.  "We're putting a lot of faith in these people."

"I noticed," said Apollo.  He blew out a impatient little sigh.  "They haven't done anything to harm us yet."

"That would sound a lot more convincing if you hadn't qualified it.  I can’t believe that the Commander would agree to all of this without knowing more.  It makes me wonder what's really going on.  We can't be that desperate, can we?"

People often forgot, faced with the devil-may-care reprobate, that Starbuck was both highly observant and highly intelligent.  Apollo often forgot it himself.

He lifted one shoulder in a slight shrug.  "It's always good to make nice with the people in charge," he said.  "It's too far to go around Krist territory, don't you think?"

"Well, it's not like we're on a schedule or anything.  Does it really matter?"

"Not our decision," said Apollo.  He smiled slightly at Sheba.  She detoured around Starbuck to reach a chair on the other side of Apollo. 

"It's a very beautiful city," she offered.  "Very advanced."

"It beats anything we had in the Colonies, that's for sure," agreed Starbuck.

"Gemina had some lovely cities," said Sheba, bridling a little on behalf of her homeworld.

"If you like deserts and Gemina was all desert."  Starbuck's innocent tone would have had choirboys in despair.  "Dries out the skin terribly, I'm told."

Apollo looked from one to the other, realising that more than half the difficulty the Pegasus and Galactica contingents had was because of this odd hostility between Sheba and Starbuck.  Now he came to think on it, it had gone on for a long time, ever since the Pegasus people had arrived.  He sighed, wondering why they didn’t get on.  Apollo didn't need a ritualistic divination ceremony to tell him that there would be a couple of earnest discussions in his future as he tried to sort this one out—his father and Colonel Tigh were sincere in wanting the integration speeded up and Apollo was far too warped by his religious upbringing to avoid even that painful duty.  Sometimes, he wished he'd been brought up a heathen.

But for the moment, he let them sit on either side of him and squabble over things that didn't matter one iota, and quietly allowed his apprehension about what the Krist had planned for him to occupy all his attention.  





TIME YET TO BE

Apollo will stare at his reflection, robed in emerald green silk, in some despair.  "You always do this sort of thing at midnight?"

The Commissar will have changed the light-coloured uniform he wore earlier for a little something in black and silver that will still leave those smooth, muscular arms bare.  Apollo will find that disconcerting, but he won’t know why. 

It will niggle at him. 

But not as much as the robes niggle at him.

"It's traditional," the Commissar will say.  "It adds to the significance."  He'll rest his hands on Apollo's shoulders and smile at their reflected selves. 

"Yes," Apollo will agree, gloomy but polite.  "Well.  Of course." And he'll add, even more politely.  "Nice robes.  Just my colour."

The big hands on his shoulders will tighten and the Commissar will lean his head down to rest his cheek against Apollo's.  Apollo will be far too surprised to protest, even if he'd have any idea of what to say or do.

"Yes," the Commissar will say, with another squeeze.  "It is."

A bell will sound and the Commissar will stand up straight and his voice will deepen.  "Time to make your choices, Querant."





TIME PAST

The first ceremony for the dead that Apollo ever attended, his first ever Midnight Watch, had been for his grandfather. 

Noah had been Commander of the Galactica before Apollo's father, and Apollo was expected to follow his father and command the battlestar himself one day.  He had sat quietly beside Mama in the front pew of the chapel, staring at the ornate casket before the altar, and had wondered if Grandfather Noah would rise up in anger if Apollo said that he was very touched by the offer but he'd rather be an historian, thank you.  Or someone who went out and explored the worlds looking for traces of their long exodus from Kobol.  He quite liked mummies, and the archaeologists found a lot of them.

He'd been experimenting with mummies at home.  He'd rather like to mummify Zac, some days but had had to make do with a couple of dead rodents that Duncan, their indispensable gardener/chauffeur/factotum/husband-to-Hanna-the-cook, had caught for him.  Duncan, a pragmatic man, had sympathised, but thought that he might want to practice on those first, before moving on to Zac, and he had allowed Apollo to work in a corner of the garden shed, a haven where Zac wasn't allowed.  Duncan had only a cursory interest in mummies, but he did say that he wasn't convinced that Apollo had got it quite right.  Duncan hadn't thought that mummies ought to smell quite as bad or fall apart quite so easily.  He'd probably been right, sadly.

The priestesses had all held a sistrum in their hands.  They'd shaken them in unison, the rattle and the little bells making an oddly light sound in such a dark service.

Father Diomedes had worn the sem vestments that night, the ones with the longest history in the traditions of the church.  The sem-priests had always been with them, right back to when humans had lived on Kobol and the sem-priest had been the one to touch the mummy's mouth with a golden adze and chant the prayers that would enable the dead one to hear and see.  Father Diomedes had touched the casket with just such an adze—Apollo had wondered when they'd stopped mummifying people?—and his oddly-accented Kobolian had rolled upwards towards the scarlet and gold vault of the chapel roof and echoed there, like thunder.

"Awake!..May you be alert as a living one, rejuvenated every day, while the gods protect you, protection being around you every dayYour mouth is split open by Horus with this little finger of his, with which he split open the mouth of his father Osiris."

Father Diomedes had dusted the casket with a plume of feathers.  Apollo had leaned back against the pew back and had wondered if he should try just using the natron salts in powder form rather than in solution.  That might work better on the rats.  And on Zac.





TIME WAS

Just about the time that Sheba and Starbuck's antagonism reached the point where it was disturbing Apollo's introspective brooding—there was shouting involved, although he'd mainly allowed that to wash over him and let Bojay and Boomer try and calm the combatants down—the Commissar arrived and took away all four of the warriors Apollo brought with him. 

"To get ready for the ceremony," he said, and hadn't come back for Apollo for more than a centar. 

Apollo concluded that that was a bad move, really.  Being left on his own with two Councillors and two aides would have been jarring enough to Apollo's spirits, even without a ceremony to worry about.  By the time that the Commissar came back, Apollo was about ready to fly apart with frustration and both Councillors were looking offended at having their inane attempts at conversation repulsed.  The aides just looked shocked, although Apollo thought that was overdone.  His language hadn't been that bad.

Still, everyone seemed to be quite glad to see the Commissar come back.  Even Apollo.  It was a lowering reflection on the fleet's political class, but the ceremony was preferable to their company.  Faced with robes, though, he had second thoughts.  Even talking to Councillors had its merits.

The Commissar was very helpful.  "Robing should never be done carelessly, of course, and I will be happy to perform this rite for you."

At least, thought Apollo, feeling badly put upon, the robes weren't quite as unflattering as those commonly worn by Councillors of the Quorum of the Twelve.  And even better, he only had to take off his flight jacket and the robes fit over the rest.  Which relieved him a little: stripping in front of the Commissar, would have unnerved him.

"See," said the Commissar, putting his hands on Apollo's shoulders and turning him to face the looking-glass.  "Now you're ready."

His hands were very warm, and heavy and oddly comforting.





TIME IS, SAITH THE BRAZEN HEAD

The little metallic rattle and the silvery bells sound for one last time and this time there's nothing but silence in the dark.  Apollo waits for a long time, apprehensive about what might come next.  But all that happens is that the Chamber is suddenly flooded with light and the Commissar comes for him, the brilliant smile on his face. 

"The Hierophant is most pleased." he says.

"It's over?"  Apollo's half-blinded, blinking away tears against the sudden brightness.  He feels let down, somehow and confesses, "I was expecting to have to do more than that."

The Commissar laughs.  "This is about choice and trust, that's all."

"So does it matter what I chose?"

"Not at all," he says.  "The choices you made were important to you, and all they showed the Hierophant is that you trust your companions—" his smile widens  "—although one more than the others, perhaps!  And you trusted us.  You didn’t know what we'd ask you to undergo, but you were willing anyway and you didn't attempt to wriggle out of it even when we made you uncomfortable.  You kept your word.  That's all we wanted to know."

Apollo wonders about that.  He's struggling to see how it was any kind of test at all—he'd been expecting something a lot more significant.  "Okay," he says, slowly.  "It seems a little bit complicated way to go about things, though, if what you wanted was really that simple." 

"It's in the small things that we look to see what your intent is, and your character."

"Right."  Apollo plucked at the robes.  "Then why the whole ceremonial thing and these robes?"

"We like to put on a show," says the Commissar, solemn.  "It's more authentic and our visitors sort of expect it."  He grins.  "Besides, you were quite right, Apollo.  That green is most definitely your colour."

"Ah," says Apollo.

The Commissar raises his hand and lays the palm against the side of Apollo's face.  His hand is callused—from using that sword, perhaps.  "I have another choice to offer."




The warriors and the Councillors are all over Apollo when he returns to their rooms.  He's back in his own clothes and remarkably relaxed, considering; they're exclaiming, relieved, demanding explanations, checking that he's unharmed and in one piece, undamaged.  He can't get a word in edgewise.

"The Hierophant has been here," Sire Solon says.  "We'll start negotiations today.  Well done, Captain."  And he and the rest of the Council delegation fade away to return to their preparations, Councillor Solon patting Apollo on the arm (again with the arm!) and Councillor Herat favouring him with a faintly-approving smile

"Was it dreadful?" demands Sheba. 

"No," says Apollo.  "I could have done without the robes, though."

"There were robes?" Starbuck looks disappointed.  "Really?  We didn’t see you, you know.  Damn.  Another blackmailing opportunity lost."   

"What happened after they brought us back here?" asks Boomer.  "It's been centars, Apollo."

"Doesn't seem that long to me."

Starbuck gives him a sharp look.  "You need something to eat," he diagnoses.

"I had breakfast with Jafine—the Commissar—and the Hierophant.  I'm not hungry."  He grins. "The Hierophant is quite a lady, isn't she?"

Starbuck makes a dismissive gesture.  "I guess.  She got on well with Councillor Solon and I'm never that sure about people who get on with Councillors.  It's immoral or something.  Are you sure you're all right?  What did they do, Apollo?  What was all that about?"

"We stood around in a room reading out words," says Sheba.  She's close on Apollo's other side.  "They didn't make a lot of sense."

"Well," amends Starbuck. "They made sense individually, and I'm sure they sounded very mystical when they were strung together like that, but what did it all add up to?"

"Choices," says Apollo.  "I just had to choose one word on each round."

"Right," says Bojay.  He shakes his head.  "That's crazy."

Apollo shrugs.  "I'm High Kobolian.  It's the sort of crazy I grew up with."

"And what was the rattle thing?" Boomer joins Bojay in the head shaking.  "It was mad, Apollo.  We stood in a circle, then every time someone – who we couldn't see, by the way – shook that rattle, we had to read the next lot of words.  Nuts."

"And all you had to do was choose a word?" presses Starbuck, as if he's convinced that Apollo's hiding something.

"Didn't you hear me?"

No, they chorus.  They'd just stood in a circle and read their word list when the rattly bells sounded, and when they'd read the last word, the Commissar had come and thanked them and returned them here, to wait.

"So," says Starbuck.  "Who did you choose?"

"Something from all of you," says Apollo, finding a diplomacy he hadn't known that he possesses.

They're losing interest.  There's no drama in just reading a list of words.  Bojay claps Apollo awkwardly on the shoulder and tells him he's glad that it was no worse, and he and Boomer drift off to one side to talk about industrial processes and power grid signals. 

Sheba puts both her hands on Apollo's arm.  "Did you choose one each from us in strict rotation?"

"Not quite."  Apollo's gaze finds Starbuck for a micron.  "I wasn't quite that even handed."

Oh, but Starbuck is very highly observant, and very intelligent.  He begins to smile.  "I was Gabriel, by the way," he says. 

"I know," says Apollo, and Starbuck's smile broadens.

Sheba's smiling too, although Apollo's not sure why.

And then the Hierophant is there with her retinue, and the Commissar, and there's another confusion of greetings and salutations.  Jafine comes to Apollo with a box in his hands.

Apollo looks at the big hands with their smooth skin, and the golden glow on the big muscular arms and he takes the box with a smile.

"Something to remember this by, Apollo," says Jafine, smiling.  He puts both his hands on Apollo's shoulders, just as he had when he'd put the emerald robes on Apollo, and when he'd taken them off.

The box rattles slightly as Apollo opens it.

The Commissar leans in close until his breath is ghosting across the side of Apollo's face, the same side that he had cupped in his palm when all the theatricals were over.

"Something to remember me by," he says, softly.

Sheba and Starbuck look annoyed again.  Starbuck looks outraged, actually, and it makes Apollo want to laugh.  He doesn't.

Apollo opens the box and smiles down at it.  The sistrum makes a musical chime when he shakes it.

 

~End~


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