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Episode 6 - BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Pages since 1995

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Episode 6 - BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Pages since 1995 Powered By Docstoc
					Battlestar Galactica: The Gamble
Virtual Second Season, Episode 6
By Maggie H.

PROLOGUE

     Among the lower levels of the _Rising Star_ were the areas that
could make people forget that this vessel had once been the finest luxury
ship in the Colonies. Down here, far removed from the Chancery, the
Entertainment and Recreational Centers, were dark corridors that led to
surplus storage facilities and the propulsion areas that seldom saw signs
of life.
     Only in the immediate period of the Exodus, when the _Rising Star_
had been loaded beyond its normal capacity to accommodate refugees from
the Colonies, had these lower levels ever been occupied. Some signs of
that temporary usage still lined the dirty, dank corridors in the form of
moldy, discarded clothing or rotting paper. Because there was never a
pressing need to have crews constantly stationed on these lower levels,
sending down cleaning details was never considered a high priority.
     The lower levels posed difficulties of another kind as well. If one
wasn't familiar with all the nuances of where these levels of the luxury
ship wound their way to, it was easy to end up becoming disoriented and
lost, with no sense of how to find one's way back to the familiar regions
of the upper levels, where human activity was a constant.
     At that precise instant, one man, middle-aged and wearing a faded
brown tunic, was dealing with the terror of not knowing where these
corridors led to. And what only increased his sense of terror was the
knowledge that he was not alone in these dark chambers, but being
pursued. Pursued by two men who had only one thought in mind: his
termination.
     There must be a turbo lift somewhere, there has to be! He thought
with increasing terror, as he stumbled through the dimly lit path. How
do people get off these blasted levels to begin with?
     Small wonder that he had been enticed down here by those who now
pursued him. And now he realized that he was not the first person who
had been dealt with in such a way when there had been refusal to
"cooperate". It was all part of a carefully planned ruthless *modus
operandi* of which he was about to become the latest victim if he didn't
get off this level soon and to safety.
     His foot tripped over the rut that separated one compartment from
the next and it caused him to collapse, face first, onto the floor. As
he struggled to get back up, he could hear from somewhere behind him the
sound of footsteps dashing madly and getting closer to him.
     Feeling the terror increase, he was almost at a sprint now, unable
to look to his right or left to see possible signs of another avenue of
exit or escape. The pain in his chest was now becoming unbearable as he
felt the strain building up on his heart.
     "Help!" he shouted, knowing it was futile because the only people
who could hear him were the ones who sought to kill him.
     And then, finally the strain proved too great and he collapsed to
the floor once again, clutching his heart in terrible pain, sweat running
off his face. From behind, the sounds of the footsteps grew more
distinct, but now they had slowed to a walk. He looked up and saw the
faces of his pursuers, one a red-haired man of about fifty with a mocking
smirk. The red-haired man was flanked by two others The one on the left
was tall and thin with black hair and a thick black beard, while the
other was powerfully built with a physique that suggested the ability to
literally rip people apart.
     "No," he whispered, the terror overriding the pain he was feeling in
his chest, his vision beginning to swim. "Please. I'll do
what...whatever... you want. Just don't kill me."
     The red-haired man slowly shook his head, "You had your chance a few
centons ago and you blew it, chum. That makes you unreliable and that's
one thing the Association doesn't care for."
     He cocked his head toward the other two men, both of whom pulled out
laser pistols, aiming them at the man.
     "No!" he gurgled, shaking, and then suddenly he clutched at his
chest one last time before collapsing to the floor, motionless, eyes
glassy.
     The red-haired man knelt beside him and took his pulse. "He's
dead," he then rose and grinned, "He just did us a favor. No sign of
foul play whatsoever. Nothing messy like the last time."
     The red-haired man started to walk away and then stopped to kneel
down by the dead body once again. He pulled out a money bag from inside
the man's pocket and nonchalantly emptied it into his hands.
     "Not bad for a day's work, wouldn't you say?" he smirked as he
tossed a gold coin to both of the henchmen and they walked back in the
direction they'd come from, which would take them back to the upper
levels and the anonymous safety of the crowds.

****************************

CHAPTER ONE

From the Adama Journals:

     In the three sectans that have past since our experience on the
planet Ki, I find that I must, unfortunately, focus on several growing
concerns within the Fleet. For one, I have asked the Council security
force aboard the Sagittarius to be vigilant. A man by the name of Sherok
has gathered a close following. They call themselves *Il fadim*, or "The
Chosen Ones," and they claim to follow the teachings of an ancient
Sagittarian text called *Ojal Jamari* I am suspicious of this Sherok,
since Fleet Personnel files have no record of anyone listed by that name,
which means that when he was first logged in, as all survivors were
following the Destruction, he used another name. However, since he as of
yet, done nothing to break any regulations or laws, we choose not to
pursue the matter of his unknown background at this time. To do so might
appear as persecution to his followers. Given that he is preaching that I
am deceiving the Fleet as to its true status - that conditions are worse
than they seem, that food supplies are nearly depleted, and that fuel
reserves are running dry - it seems prudent to be vigilant but also
cautious with how we approach this matter. For now, I have asked the
Chief of Security to closely monitor the situation but take no action
unless he or one of his followers clearly violates the law.
     The second issue - and the one far more troubling and immediate - is
the one concerning the illegal activities aboard the _Rising Star_. It is
apparent that an 'Association' has evolved, a crime ring, where merchants
in the newly created Market Section are being harassed and beaten, even.
So far, we are powerless to prevent it, because whoever they are, they
have instilled such a degree of fear in the merchants that no one dare
speak. The fact that we can attribute two deaths - two terminations - to
this 'Association' has only increased the level of fear and created an
air of terrified submissiveness among those still operating in the Market
Section. Not surprisingly, some have chosen to close their shops or
kiosks. If we cannot contain this matter - soon - we will be forced to
close the Market Section entirely. I would hope to avoid that because our
people need the opportunity to be more independent and self-sufficient.
That is why many merchants do remain, despite the pressures from this
'Association.' For their sake and for everyone's we must break this crime
ring. Given that normal measures have had no impact, I am forced to take
on more drastic - and dangerous -- actions. I have given the matter much
thought and can see no alternative.
     A third issue, one that is admittedly less serious than the matter
of the Association, is the enigma that puzzles me surrounding Sire
Antipas' obsession with the Libran artifacts recovered a sectar ago. I
can not help but feel that there is some deeper, less altruistic motive
behind Antipas' desire to have these artifacts under his overall
jurisdiction, but there is nothing to stop me from letting him take
custody of them, and if I did try to stop, he would undoubtedly raise his
voice and try to cause me more difficulties than he already has. Things
are reaching a point where I feel the need to almost keep one eye
constantly on him to see what he might do next.

*************

     Whenever Apollo and Starbuck heard a unicom announcement requesting
both their presence in Adama's quarters, they always knew the news
couldn't be good. Despite the closeness they shared with the commander,
they knew that Adama never asked to see them during the course of a
normal work cycle unless it meant something serious.
     When they arrived, they were surprised to see one other man present
in the office in addition to the Commander. Immediately, they both
recognized Zeibert, Chief Steward of the _Rising Star_ and director of
operations for the Astral Lounge and Main Dining Hall.
     *Well, one thing's for certain,* Starbuck thought wryly, *he's not
here to complain about the tips he gets from me.*
     "Thanks for coming," Adama said, "You know Chief Steward Zeibert of
the _Rising Star_, I assume?"
     "Yes," Apollo nodded. "A little surprised to see you here."
     "He's here for a good reason, Apollo," Adama leaned back in his
chair. "Zeibert, suppose you go over again what you've been telling me."
     The Chief Steward's expression was grim -- a far cry from the way
Starbuck remembered him best, with the mischievous twinkle in the eye as
he made the arrangements to get the lieutenant extra private
accommodations when he was juggling both Athena and Cassiopeia prior to
the Proteus mission, and getting hundreds of extra cubits in the process.
     "As I was saying, Commander, a serious situation has arisen on the
_Rising Star_ in the last few sectons. One so serious that I do not
believe Council Security is capable of handling the situation any
longer.." The way Zeibert snorted as he said this said volumes about his
opinion of Council Security. " I've tried to keep a low profile about
this since the trouble started, but when people start to die, those
concerns must end and serious steps be taken. Even if it does mean going
outside the normal channels as far as jurisdiction is concerned."
     "So you said," Adama noted, "When did the trouble begin?"
     "It all started last sectar when I received reports of petty theft
that seemed to originate in the Market Section, which as you know is
located one compartment over from the Astral Lounge."
     "Yes," Adama nodded. The Market Section was a relatively recent
addition to the local ship, designed to offer an outlet for small,
independent merchants and businesses to attract customers from the
wealthier classes of people that resided aboard the _Rising Star_.
Anyone from craft peddlers to fortune tellers could usually find a place
to conduct their business. "Go on."
     "Well, at first it seemed like some of the independent merchants
were just suffering from lax security in their kiosks. But then, one of
the merchants suddenly was found murdered two sectons ago. A dealer in
Aerian spices named Jubal. The post mortem showed he'd been beaten
savagely before being shot with a laser pistol."
     "Ouch," Starbuck winced. "No indication as to who was responsible?"
     Zeibert looked over at him, "The only indication Council Security
has, Lieutenant, is that there is some kind of organized crime
association that's come into being and is making life difficult for these
merchants. Apparently this 'Association' engages in shake-down
activities to confiscate large shares of their earnings, and those who
don't cooperate get subject to either theft at the least, or at worst a
physical beating that results in termination."
     "If you know there's an 'Association' as you call it, then shouldn't
you have leads as to who's behind it?"
     The Chief Steward shook his head, "No we don't, Captain. Because
this Association appears to be quite effective in instilling terror in
those merchants who are well aware of its existence. There are two
merchants I've talked to, who were among those that were merely robbed,
but they refuse to be cooperative and it's clear that it's because they
fear retribution from the Association. The only thing we know is that
whoever's behind it likely operates from within the _Rising Star_ and
within proximity of the Market Section, which means he's apt to be
connected with any other legitimate operation aboard ship too, such as
the Astral Lounge or the Main Chancery."
     "Okay," Starbuck said, "I get the drift, but where do we come into
this?"
     "I'm coming to that, Starbuck," Adama said, "There was one
termination last sectan, which was bad enough. But just yesterday,
another victim was found. A Gemonese man who specialized in reading
people's minds and making predictions into their future. No signs of
foul play because the medical report said he died of a heart attack, but
there were too many suspicious things that tied into what's gone on
before. One, he was a merchant in the Market Section. Two, he was found
on the lower levels of the _Rising Star_, which are usually off-limits to
everyone, and three there was a look of terror on his face as though he
were fleeing from something or someone." his tone grew more serious,
"With two people dead, this situation has become more dangerous then we
can imagine. If an organized crime unit emerges that has the capacity to
kill people who don't do their bidding, then the long-term effects on
Fleet morale could be more crippling then a Cylon attack."
     "I get the picture, sir," Apollo said, keeping his tone formal since
Zeibert was present, "But that doesn't explain why you'd need us?"
     Adama took a breath, "Actually, it's just you, Starbuck, that we
need for this operation."
     "Me?" the blond warrior dubiously raised his eyebrows, "I'm afraid
you've lost me, Commander."
     "Starbuck," Adama said gravely, "I've given this a lot of hard
thought. I've also discussed it with the Chief of Security, since we
will be crossing into their jurisdiction. The bottom line is that *you*
are the one person within the ranks of the Colonial Service who
understands better how the.....criminal element aboard the _Rising Star_
might act, and how they might try to take advantage of unsuspecting
merchants to do their bidding. It's because of that insight you have,
that you become the most qualified person for the job. It won't be
pleasant, but....the sooner we get this problem neutralized the better,
and I have no intention of letting less than qualified people in Council
Security handle this kind of operation."
     "Surely *Colonial* Security has *someone*?" Starbuck asked, feeling
like he must be in the middle of his sleep period and that, surely, this
was all a wild dream.
     Adama shook his head. "I've reviewed all the profiles of both
Council and Colonial security personnel. They are either just too young
and inexperienced, or were in other designations before the Great
Destruction, or lack the correct...profile for this type of covert
operation."
     Starbuck knew the answer to his next question, but he asked it,
anyway, casting a glance at Ziebert. "So why do you think that *I* fit
that profile?"
     Adama let out a long breath. "Starbuck, let's just say that certain
aspects of your record both before and after joining the Colonial Service
-"
     "'After'?" interrupted the lieutenant. "My service record is
clean!"
     Adama ignored his warrior's breach of protocol. Instead, he gave
him a steady look and said evenly, "I was thinking about a certain
mission to Artca, for instance, and how someone had enough skill and
cunning to reprogram the computer..."
     Starbuck mouthed and "oh" but remained silent.
     "Anyway," the commander continued, "it is those aspects of your
record, as well as your training and skill at handling yourself in
dangerous situations, that make you the most qualified choice."
     Starbuck stared at the commander for a moment as the 'wild dream'
feeling persisted. Then he shook his head. "Now wait a centon," he
protested, "How am *I* supposed to get close to the criminal element to
find out who's at the head of this Association?"
     "That's right," added Apollo. "With all the triad games and
programs like the 'Warrior of the Centar,' he's hardly an 'unknown.'"
     "By disguising yourself," Adama said, "Some expert make-up, and a
false background programmed into Fleet Personnel computers, and you'll
find yourself tomorrow in the _Rising Star_ working as a bartender in the
Astral Lounge. That will place you in proximity to the Market Section to
get a read on what's happening, and also as a _Rising Star_ employee
you'll have the latitude to move freely in all sections and have a better
chance of picking up on what's happening."
     "Bartender, eh?" Starbuck thoughtfully rubbed his hand on his chin,
"Any freebies come with that? Like maybe a bottle from the Proteus
collection?"
     "Lieutenant, if you end up being successful in breaking this
Association, I will give you my personal assurance of three bottles from
that collection with my compliments," Zeibert said.
     "Hmmm, well in that case maybe I could get to enjoy something like
this," Starbuck cracked a smile. "And since this would require *really*
getting close to the riffraff of society, a bankroll for the Chancery
could come in handy."
     "You'll get what you need to get started, Starbuck," Adama said
patiently, "But once we do that, you'll be on your own. At most, we
might be able to give you a transceiver in case you get into trouble, but
for the most part, we have to stay clear of the _Rising Star_ when you do
this to avoid arousing suspicion."
     "Yeah, I can understand that," Starbuck said and glanced at Apollo,
"If I get into trouble and lose the transceiver, I can just flap my arms
and waggle, right?"
     "I wouldn't treat this lightly, Starbuck," Adama knew why the brash
lieutenant felt the need to indulge in jokes to relieve the inner tension
he might feel over something like this. "If anything, this may be
potentially as hazardous as dropping into a Cylon city for a covert
operation. What I must insist on though, is that you tell almost no one
else about what it is you'll be doing and where you're off to. Your
official cover story is that you're detached from Blue Squadron duty for
the next two sectons. You've been given a disciplinary assignment aboard
the _Agro Ship Two_."
     "I see." Starbuck's expression grew thoughtful, "What
about....certain people I feel close to?"
     "I haven't decided on that." Adama sat down. "You'll get my decision
this evening before your sleep cycle. In the meantime, I suggest you get
your gear together and make all necessary preparations for this
assignment. I want to meet here at 1900 for a final briefing. The
sooner we act, the sooner we can make sure no one else's life is at
risk."
     *Except possibly mine,* Starbuck thought as he and Apollo left the
room. *Actually, I think I'd prefer walking into a Cylon city...*

******

     Doctor Salik, hand on his chin, stepped back and pursed his lips for
a moment as he studied his 'patient.' "That should do, lieutenant" he
said at last. He handed Starbuck a mirror. "I mean 'Rogelio.'"
     A little more than two centars ago, the commander had called
Starbuck back to his office for the final briefing and had stated that
Dr. Salik would be altering his appearance. The actual briefing had
taken only about ten centons. He had given Starbuck his new I.D. --
Rogelio, originally from Scorpius, former agro ship worker, now seeking
employment on the _Rising Star_ -- and explained that he would be
spending the sleep period in his temporary quarters aboard _The Colonial
Movers_. In the morning, he would shuttle over to the _Rising Star_ for
an 'interview' with Chief Steward Zeibert, would be 'hired,' and would
then be assigned to work the bar in the main entertainment lounge.
     "You'll be working for a man named Samuels," Adama added. "When
we analyzed all of the data, he's as close as we could come to a lead,
and that's because, for some reason, he has a high turn-over rate among
his employees. From what we can tell, though," Adama added, shaking his
head, "that's due to the fact that the man has, apparently, and
unpleasant personality. Nothing more."
     "Swell," mutter Starbuck, liking his assignment less and less.
     The last item of the official briefing had been presented by Apollo.
"Don't lose this," he had said as he handed Starbuck a thin, rectangular
device. "It's made to attach securely to some inconspicuous spot, such
as inside a pocket or a boot."
     Starbuck had studied the tiny transceiver before dropping it into
his pocket; he wore a tan tunic with a brown vest and trousers, along
with well-worn, non-regulation boots, and he felt decidedly itchy in the
unfamiliar civilian outfit. He glanced at the three people gathered in
Adama's office - the Commander, Colonel Tigh, and Apollo,. "So let me be
sure I've got this straight. If I activate this thing, it'll transmit an
audio signal along with my exact location."
     "That's correct." Apollo nodded.
     "But I'm still on my own, since you will all be safe and cozy over
here on the _Galactica"
     "Essentially, yes," answered the Commander. Everyone looked so
serious that Starbuck had to resist the urge to squirm in his seat. "If
the situation warrants it, we... can notify Council security to back you
up -"
     "In other words, I'm on my own." He gave a wry grin.
     "Just play it safe, okay buddy?" Apollo stated. "Here." He handed
Starbuck a small data pad. Starbuck studied it a moment. It was a basic
manual on agro and farming methods and equipment. "In case someone should
decide to toss out somthing an old agro daggit should know."
     "Hey, I'm from Umbra, remember? A farming community. In summers,
they let us kids in the orphanage who were able-bodied work in the fields
and hydroponics stations for a few cubits. I know agro like a viper
cockpit, buddy." He handed the pad back to Apollo. "But hey." He put a
hand on his Strike Captain's shoulder. "Thanks for thinking of that,
Apollo."
     "We want you back alive, Bucko. We can't leave anything to chance.
Besides, who am I going to get to play Triad with me?"
     Starbuck did not miss the concern etched in Apollo's voice, beneath
the banter. He had been about to respond with an appropriately flip
comment when the intercom had interrupted them. "I'm ready," said the
voice of Dr. Salik.
     "Good," said Adama. "Bring everything here to my office. How long
will it take?"
     "About a centar. I'll be there in five centons."
     The four had settled into an uneasy silence as they waited.
"Commander," Starbuck said, finally, "you still haven't said whether I
can tell, uh...Cassie about this. I mean, if I'm away, she might get
suspicious - or worse - if I don't ask her ..."
     Adama had smiled at him. "We've asked her to join us a bit later.
So, yes, she will be aware of the situation. And, in anticipation of your
next question, Lieutenant, if this mission should extend beyond the
anticipated time, we have a backup plan."
     As soon as Salik had arrived, the doctor had chased everyone else
out of the Commander's office in order to proceed. His 'one centar' had
stretched into two, though, mainly because Starbuck had flat-out refused
his first option for altering the lieutenant's appearance, --a hair piece
that would have required the him to shave his head.
     "No. Uh, uh. Forget it." Starbuck had shook his head and held up
his hands. "I don't care if it's easier. I have to draw the line
somewhere!"
     Salik had looked amused, as if he had expected this reaction, and
had explained his second option. Two centars later, Starbuck found
himself gazing at the face of a stranger in the mirror. "You can change
everything back, right?" Starbuck's voice held more than a little
trepidation as he studied his new look. "Right?"
     "The hair coloring will naturally fade after about three sectons.
The surgical alterations will take just a few centons to remove. So,
yes, you'll be back to your old dashing, and totally self-absorbed former
self by the end of the sectar." Salik crossed his arms and grinned.
"And now the true test."
     The doctor stepped behind Adama's desk to activate the intercom. A
moment later Adama, Tigh, and Apollo filed back in, followed by
Cassiopeia. Starbuck stood up to face the group, hands on hips. As the
others moved aside, Cassie finally had an unobstructed view of the
lieutenant. She stopped, mid-step, to stare. As Starbuck grinned and
rotated for all to see the final results, he kept a close eye on her,
trying to gage her reaction.
     "My, my," she said, crossing her arms and shaking her head after a
good, long centon. She let her gaze sweep slowly downward, taking in the
sight before her. Only the trademark grin revealed, to her, that it was,
indeed, Lieutenant Starbuck. He had long, shoulder-length black hair
that was smoothed back and secured with a leather band, with a matching
black mustache and goatee. His eyes were green and his nose now arched
out more prominently, thanks to just a touch of quick plastic surgery.
His hands, normally smooth, had been roughened by micro-implants, giving
him the appearance of a laborer. She approached him slowly, a sly smile
on her face. "I'd say this is a *definite* improvement."
     Starbuck glanced nervously at the commander as Cassie approached
even closer. "Uh, sorry, it's only temporary."
     "Oh, I don't know," she said, "I could get used to this." She ran a
finger through the beard. "This feels real," she said, nodding her
approval to Dr. Salik.
     Salik smiled, looking satisfied. "Implants. They should blend
nicely as his true beard grows. The color will blend because I used a
time-released internal pigmentation that'll last for about 3 sectons. I
used laser fused hair extensions and a quick iris injection to change the
eye color. A little bit more of a 'sculptured' nose, plus the hands, and
I figured no one would mistake him for a Colonial Warrior."
     "You're right on that point." Apollo was chuckling. "He should fit
in perfectly in on the _Rising Star_. Especially among the seedier
elements."
     Starbuck shot his friend a feigned annoyed look. "Seedier? Ha, ha.
Try 'barkeep extraordinaire.' I know a few drink mixes that I bet even
Ziebert has never heard of."
     "Careful, or he may not want to go back to his old self after two
sectons of mixing drinks for questionable women, and playing the
chancery." Apollo ducked a few paces back from his friend as Starbuck
took a mock swing at him, then nodded at the doctor, admiring Salik's
work. He had to keep reminding himself that it was actually Starbuck.
Someone who only knew him casually - or from vid pictures - would never
recognize him.
     Adama watched his two warriors and Cassiopeia and Dr. Salik,
listening to the banter, and knowing all were concealing the tension they
felt. There was no need to remind them that this would be far from a
relaxing furlon for the lieutenant; they were all quite aware that he
would be on his own, trying to identify, somehow, the person or persons -
and more likely the latter - responsible for two terminations. He would
be unarmed and alone. And these people were cunning and ruthless, a
point illustrated by the fact that neither Council security nor Colonial
security had any idea of *who* was responsible. They had left no
evidence and no one - if anyone knew anything -- was willing to talk.
     Eventually, the commander stood from behind his desk. "The last
shuttle for The _Colonial Movers_ departs in fifteen centons. We need to
end this, I'm afraid. 'Rogelio' needs to get some rest tonight."
     Starbuck gave Adama a bemused grin. "I'll try, Commander, but with
this mission, that'll probably be impossible."

CHAPTER TWO

     It's called a what?" Samuels, the manager for the _Rising Star_'s
Astral Lounge, gave his newest employee a dubious look, then held the
glass at eye level to examine the mysterious drink more closely. Thin
streaks of orange, red, and yellow swirled around in the amber-colored
ambrosia.
     "It's an Orion Sunset," answered Starbuck - now officially "Rogelio"
and a mere civilian.
     The man sniffed the unfamiliar liquid, then took a cautious and tiny
sip, followed by a longer draw. The smooth, flavor-packed Orion Sunset
was irresistible, even when created from synthesized ingredients.
Samuels, however, quickly suppressed any hint of approval and frowned at
Starbuck. "It might be good, but it's also too dammed expensive to make.
Now," Samuels jabbed a stirring ladle at him, "get back to work."
     Starbuck held up his hands. "Fine, fine. Just trying to be helpful
-"
     "If I need any suggestions from the hired help," Samuels growled,
turning to glower at the younger man, "then I'll ask. Otherwise, just
keep 'em to yourself, Rogelio." With that, the barkeep turned his back
and marched off into his office.
     Starbuck let out a long breath, grabbed a sanitizing rag and tub for
clearing dishes, and returned to his assigned duty of keeping the tables
in the entertainment lounge ready for use. "Felgercarb..." he muttered
under his breath, "I hadn't planned on scrubbing floors and tables for
two sectons..." He glared at the closed door behind which his employer
spent a fair amount of time. After three days, he was no closer to
knowing anything more useful than when he had started, except to confirm
his first impression of Samuels - that he was a crass, unpleasant,
disagreeable man, to put it nicely. He was older, stocky but not unfit,
and was a few centimetrons shorter than Starbuck. His most notable
feature was his shock of red hair - and the fact that his face turned an
almost matching color when he was angry, which happened all too often
and for little reason, as far as Starbuck could tell. At the best of
times, he growled at his assistants; at others, he yelled and cursed when
not within earshot of the customers, his verbage threatening to peel the
paint off the bulkheads. Even getting to spend his off centars in the
chancery was not worth putting up with this felgercarb, Starbuck mused.
Still, the man seemed to run an efficient business, despite his
personality, and he always turned a gracious smile to the paying public.

     *He's smooth,* he thought. Too smooth? Nothing in the past three
days had seemed the least bit suspicious. Yet, something about the man
told him to be cautious with him, very cautious...
     Starbuck scrutinized the patrons as they filtered in and out from
the chancery to the Astral Lounge to either the exit for the shuttle bay
and the Market Section or on through to the Main Dining Hall. He saw
happy, relaxed faces, mostly, civilians grateful for the chance to escape
the harsh reality of life in makeshift homes aboard aging vessels. Some
were obviously of the remaining upper class, those who still had the
wealth and resources to make the _Rising Star_ a regular haunt; others
were those who had been granted a two-day's pass, along with a enough
cubits to make their visit enjoyable, as part of the Fleet's recently
activated "lottery system," where names of families and non-military
personnel were randomly chosen by a computer. The program automatically
removed the "winners" from its database to guarantee that everyone would,
eventually, receive their pass.
     The workers, Starbuck noted, looked tired, maybe, but focused.
Dedicated, he decided. They knew that they were among the fortunate few
who, on a regular basis, could be a part of this haven from the realities
of a life as refugees. The _Rising Star_, with the entertainment
possibilities that it offered, was the Fleet's oasis and perhaps the one
single factor that kept morale alive. Without it, Starbuck knew that,
he, at least, would have found their current situation intolerable many
sectars ago.
     The _Rising Star_ was haven for the weary - and the ruthless,
supposedly.
     With a sigh, he stacked two more ambrosa glasses into his tub and
hefted it up against his hip. He turned to move to the next table. And
came face to face with Giles and Greenbean. The two, obviously on
furlon, were intent on making their way to the chancery. Starbuck sucked
in his breath out of surprise but kept a straight face, saying, "Pardon
me."
     The warriors stared at him for a micron, then around him, mumbling,
"Sorry," as they continued on their way without even a flicker of
recognition.
     Starbuck slowly released the breath, gazing for a moment at his
comrades' backs as they disappeared into the chancery. The encounter
left him with a weird feeling, as if he were invisible. To have two
people he knew so well ... and had even spent successive nights with on
deep patrol no less! But he shook off the sensation, setting his jaw and
taking another hard look around. No one seemed out of place. No one
seemed at all suspicious. After three days, Starbuck knew that he had to
make a change, had to get out of the Astral Lounge and delve deeper into
the Market Section. But how? He had the beginnings of plan, but -
     A face caught his attention as several new patrons entered from the
docking bay lounge. An elderly but animated person with a bounce in his
step and whose hands waved as he spoke to his companion. Chameleon. He
must have been regaling Siress Blassie with some tale because she stared
at him with an interest that was obvious even from a distance. Starbuck
smiled to himself. The old con man had either completely taken in the
siress, or he had met his match. He suspected the latter, because she
had been more than happy to assume the role of Chameleon's "supervisor"
after the Borellian Noman incident. Now, Blassie seemed more than
content as they strolled into the chancery.
     Starbuck's smile faded, though, as his first encounter with the man
flashed through his mind. All he had done was to tell the truth - yes,
he'd been a survivor of the raid on Umbra. Yes, he'd lost an infant son
in that raid, as well as his wife and his home. Never mind that he had
embellished the tale with a few fictional details, such as working as a
genetic tracer. The man had never out and out tried try to maliciously
deceive him. Just take advantage of a few facts the two happened to have
in common to escape a dangerous situation. Starbuck figured that he
would have done the same had he been the object of a Borellian blood
hunt. Yes, he had forgiven Chameleon that night. No hard feelings. And
he had truly meant it, at the time, at least, that he wanted to stay in
contact with him. Who else would have made a better gambling partner?
Yet, after several sectars, Starbuck found that he had no desire to
continue the relationship. In fact, he had to admit to himself that he
was actively avoiding it, because Chameleon had tried to contact him on
several occasions since then. Cassie, for some reason, seemed to think
that they were too alike to not continue their association , that he
should be delighted to have found someone who shared the same passion for
Pyramid and penchant for creating elaborate betting systems.
     Starbuck would not - could not - explain to Cassie that every time
he saw Chameleon, his mind replayed the intense, indescribable hope that
maybe, just maybe, he was his father - followed by the immeasurable
disappointment in learning the truth. No, better to just forget it had
ever happened. To move on and go their separate ways.
     A hand slapped his shoulder. "I don't pay you to gawk at the girls,
Roggie," growled Samuels in his most condescending voice. "Now move your
astrum!"
     Starbuck turned to glare at the barkeep but said nothing as he
hoisted the container once more and headed for the galley. Either he had
to find a better cover, or he was going to end his employment - and
probably the mission - by slugging Samuels. As he exchanged the loaded
tub for an empty one, he racked his brain for a solution to his biggest
obstacle in becoming a merchant in the Market Section: money. He needed
financial backing from someone, somehow. But how? He could not just ask
Adama for assistance. No, he had to act purely as "Rogelio." "Rogelio"
needed a financial backer.
     Starbuck chewed his lip, pondering his problem as he returned to
clearing tables. Still deep in thought as he cleared the dishes from a
table near the entrance to the gaming area, he finally noticed the
profile of a figure perched on a chancery bar stool. A familiar figure,
Siress Belloby. A smile spread slowly across his lips. He knew what he
had to do. Now, if he could just survive another four centars with his
employer, then he'd be free to set his plan in motion.

********

     "What do you have, so far?" asked Adama, staring into his small
screen.
     "Aside from Starbuck getting cuffed by Samuels a couple of times,
nothing. I don't know how he can keep his temper with that man. He's
volatile, and rude."
     "Yes, we can't have Starbuck blowing his cover so soon. Keep a close
eye on things, and be prepared at all times."
     "Yes, sir."
     The screen went blank, but Adama gazed at it for several more
microns.
     "Anything?" came Colonel Tigh's quiet voice.
     Adama shifted away from the vid console and stood up from behind his
desk, shaking his head at his Exec. "Not so far." He sighed, reluctantly
turning his mind to other matters. "Fleet status report?"
     "Nothing but good news to report, sir. Everything else is quiet. All
ships reporting in at Status Green. Blue Squadron has been granted
furlon." Tigh smiled slightly. "Oh, and Boomer and Athena departed two
centars ago to begin their assignment on _Agro Ship One_."
     "I see. Good news indeed, Colonel. A little time among the flowers
will do them no harm."
     "I can hardly disagree, Commander, but..."
     "Yes?" Adama noted Tigh's hesitation. "Go ahead, Tigh."
     "Well sir, I've read their reports, and reviewed the security tapes.
It does seem a bit...harsh, to discipline them for something they had so
little control over. Sir."
     "Perhaps. But, regulations are quite specific about unauthorized
personnel aboard military vessels in time of war, and the Martial Law
Decree still applies. Besides, justice must be *seen* to be done,
Colonel. If I overlook this because my own daughter was involved..." He
let the rest of the sentence hang. "Besides, I'm on thin enough ice as it
is with the Council, and Sire Antipas. A *Special Report* on the IFB
about how the Commander shows favoritism to his own family is the last
thing any of us in the military need."
     "I see, sir. I guess...I guess I don't have your instinct for
sensing the political ramifications of things."
     "Don't sell yourself short, Tigh," smiled Adama, putting a friendly
hand on his XO's shoulder. "I was raised in a household where politics
was as much a part of growing up as Worship Day dinners with family, or
listening to my father's stories from the battlefronts. My mother was a
member of our local town council *and* school board. I was reared in it."
He moved to the window, then looked back at Tigh. "Trust me, old friend,
if you ever sit in this seat, " he gestured towards his desk, "you'll
pick it up, fast. I didn't choose my XO at random, you know.
     "Thank-you, sir. Sometimes I...sometimes I can't help but see myself
as just another thick-skulled Warrior, who only knows how to fight."
     "The Council is just another kind of battlefield, Tigh." Adama
looked at the dark screen on his desk. "As is this operation here. We may
not be going in with Vipers blazing, but it's a battle all the same."
     "Yes, sir," said Tigh. "And thanks again."

************

     Boomer set his duffle-bag down on the cot, and looked about his new
quarters. Like all living spaces aboard the _Agro Ship One_, it was
cramped, Spartan, and made you feel as if you now understood the point of
view of the shoe, sitting in its box. Still, it served, and he and Athena
would only be here for a couple of sectons, on this disciplinary duty.
While he hated paying a penalty for anything, he had to admit he had bent
quite a few regs, after finding the two Kians abaord the shuttle. He and
Athena both. While her attitude towards the ex-cavemen was cool, he had
to admit that he felt only gratitude and thanks. Their clan had, after
all, rescued an injured total stranger from almost-certain death in a
predator-filled jungle, and taken him in. He had repaid them as much as
he could, by helping to advance their society, back on Ki. But, when he
had discovered that two of them had decided to stay with him, what could
he do? The Fleet was already burning out of Ki's orbit, and taking the
extra time to prepare and launch a shuttle to return them seemed
wasteful. Besides, he couldn't deny a real tug. He liked these two
Stone-Age primitives, Kudur-Mabug, and his consort, Pili, daughter of her
tribe's chief, Utu-Hegal. As punishment for his indiscretions, he and
Athena were to help the two waifs assimilate to Colonial ways, and work
with them both on language, and the cataloging of the hundreds of plant
samples brought back from Ki by Agro Chief Carmichael.
     *Not the worst duty in the Fleet,* he mused as he left his quarters,
to see Athena, half in, half out, the door to hers. Since their one night
of passion on Ki, he had felt much different towards her than previously.
Boomer was not immune to the glories of the female form, but after an
incident early in his military career, where he had fallen and fallen
hard - for the wrong girl, it turned out, he had avoided any serious
attachments of the heart. While he would never say so aloud, he had
disapproved of Starbuck's treatment of Apollo's sister, after meeting
Cassie. While he had nothing but the greatest respect and admiration for
the med-tech, he had never quite found it in him to approve of Starbuck's
way with women. And, he had to admit, there had been times, since then,
when he had wondered about Athena. Athena and himself...what if? Their
mutual struggle to survive, when the _Galactica_ had been on fire, had
indeed brought them close, but how close? He had to admit, he had felt
the stirrings of feelings towards her after that. Feelings he couldn't
quite put a name to, or had been afraid to put a name to. But he'd been
cautious, not wanting to ruin what little there was between them...
     Until the adventure on Ki. Very close after being dumped by
Starbuck, Athena had kept her feelings to herself. It wasn't until they
were reunited in the cave on Ki that she had seemingly lost her tight
control, and shown her true feelings in a night of utter abandon. Boomer
couldn't help but be flattered, as well as intrigued. Intrigued, and
hopeful. Was it more than just a one-nighter? He sincerely hoped so, and
being here, in close quarters with her for two sectons, just might...
     "Oh, Boomer!" Athena said, turning at the sound of his footfalls.
"There you are. Say, how do you like these swanky digs? Just like a
weekend at a resort, huh?" She smiled a gallows smile, and he couldn't
help but return it. "Puts our furlon in the Cassiodorus system to shame,
eh?"
     "You said it, Athena. Trust me, I'm booking my next furlon, right
here. Small rooms, dingy metal walls, mattresses from the Second
Millennium, not enough amenities for a Cylon, and one head for the entire
section." He let out a dramatic sigh. "Just like the travel brochures."
     "Well, today, we get to travel back to the jungle, Boomer."
     "Oh?"
     "Yes. Carmichael will be working on his plants, and today it's the
tropical varieties. Our friends are waiting for us."
     "Let's not keep them waiting." He noted, but said nothing, as she
put her arm around him, and headed towards the lift.

 ************

     "Do I know you?" Siress Belloby's voice was slow and deliberate as
she studied the man before her. She narrowed her eyes and stared
skeptically at him.
     "Well, yes," answered Starbuck, "but it'll take some explaining.
Would you mind if I come in?"
     "I most certainly *would* mind!" The skeptical look turned
critical. Siress Belloby stepped the rest of the way across the
threshold and the door swooshed closed behind her. "I find it a bad -
not to mention stupid - practice for a woman to invite a strange man into
her quarters." She stared at him with open distrust, arms crossed.
     Starbuck let out a long breath and glanced around. Several other
people had stopped to watch, warily, having heard her loud and quite
distinct words. But he could hardly explain the situation in front of
them. So he smiled at Belloby with what he hoped was an apologetic gaze.
"Look, my name is Rogelio and I...ah...know a viper pilot named Captain
Apollo. He -"
     "I seriously doubt that you know Captain Apollo." Belloby stabbed a
finger at his chest.
     Starbuck ran a hand over his slicked-back hair and took a deep
breath. "We met playing triad, okay?" He paused to see if she would
challenge this, too, but Belloby remained silent. "And we have a mutual
friend - Nogow."
     Siress Belloby narrowed her eyes. "What did you say your name was?"
     "Rogelio." Starbuck grinned. "Perhaps Nogow has mentioned me?"
     He watched the emotions play across her face before she answered -
confusion, uncertainty, then amusement. Her mouth twitched upward.
"Fine, ah, Rogelio, Nogow might have mentioned you. Come on in," she
said, smiling and nodding at her watchful neighbors. "It's all right."
     Belloby activated the door and followed Starbuck on through. As he
heard it close, he turned slowly to face her. "Siress -"
     Belloby suddenly broke out laughing. "Starbuck? Starbuck?" She
gave him an incredulous look, then took several deep breaths to regain
her composure. "I finally recognized your voice, but this -" She
circled around him, eying him from head to toe. "What's the occasion,
'Rogelio'?" She let the name roll off her tongue, giving it a native
Scorpian feel.
     Starbuck rolled his eyes. "Okay, let me explain, please."
     Twenty centons later, Belloby no longer felt the urge to laugh.
Instead, she paced back and forth, pondering the second question that
Starbuck had asked her. The first had been easy to answer - of course
she would offer him the financial backing to open a kiosk in the Market
Section. But, while she agreed that it was probably the only way to find
out more about the illegal 'Association,' neither knew exactly what he
ought to peddle.
     "What about betting advice?" Starbuck said. "I could offer the
secrets to the perfect system!"
     "I don't think so." Belloby gave him a wry smile. "You'd have too
many upset customers if your advice didn't work. We'd never know who the
real scoundrels were."
     "Ha, ha. Very funny," replied Starbuck. "So what do you
recommend?"
     Belloby pursed her lips and thought for a moment longer, staring at
nothing as she paced. Then she stopped, nodding her head. "Yes! That
should work!" she said to herself.
     "What?" Starbuck asked, impatient when she did not elaborate.
     "Okay," the siress said, finally turning to face the younger man.
"I have a friend who works on _Agro Ship Two_. He specializes in
growing the java plant. And he also has several distinct java brews that
he knows how to make."
     "You mean start up a java kiosk?" Starbuck shook his head. "I
don't know."
     "Oh, come on," teased Belloby. "If you can boil water you can make
a cup of java! And I bet my friend would even have the equipment you'd
need to brew it on a large enough scale to sell it." She grinned in
satisfaction. "If you handle getting everything else set up in the
Market Section, I'll get you everything you need to make the best cup of
java in the Fleet!"
     "Okay, okay," Starbuck said with a sigh. It wasn't like he had any
better options. "So ah, when did you become such a fan of java, Siress?
I always thought you preferred the ah..."
     "The hard stuff?" Belloby smiled, "Not anymore. After that
frightful experience on that planet, I came back and found I'd lost the
taste for it. Good java will prolong your life, and that's what I want
to do more than anything else."
     "Ah," Starbuck nodded, realizing that free from the effects of
ambrosia, Belloby was much more agreeable than she'd been throughout the
Serenity mission. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized
this was something he could probably do with little trouble. How
difficult could it be to sell java, anyway, once one was able to brew
several litrons?

******

     Starbuck arrived ten centons early in order to speak with Samuels
before his shift the next day. He rapped on the door to his office,
making every effort to keep his face serious and conceal the delight he
felt at being able to end this short and miserable period of employment.
     A moment later, the door opened and Samuels stepped out, scowling at
the interruption. The scowl deepened at the sight of Starbuck "What do
you want?"
     Starbuck cleared his throat and said politely, "I need to speak with
you for a moment. I -"
     "I'm busy," Samuels glared at him. "Get your lazy astrum out there
and get to work!" He turned to head back into his office.
     Starbuck clenched his jaw and drew on every mililitron of his
self-control to keep his demeanor calm and polite. "I am resigning my
employment. Effective today -"
     The man swung around, face as red as his flaming hair. "What? I'm
short-handed as it is! I don't have time to rework the duty roster.
Frak you. Frak you all - you're all alike! Undependable and lazy -"
     Starbuck took a step back as Samuels rocked forward, looking like he
had every intention of lashing out. Instead, though, he swung around
again and stormed into his office, still ranting. The door swooshed
closed, cutting off the rest of his tirade.
     Starbuck let out a long, slow breath, staring for a moment at the
closed door. Then the corners of his mouth crept up into a satisfied
smirk. "Good riddance to you, too," he mumbled as he headed out of the
Astral Lounge to meet with Siress Belloby and her friend in the Market
Section.
     The exchange had not gone unnoticed. As the lieutenant crossed the
threshold and disappeared, a lone figure -- an older man dressed in
maintenance blues, his hair thinning and grey, his back stooped, and a
patch covering one eye - paused in his task of sweeping the Astral Lounge
to discreetly watch until he had disappeared. Then, with a seeming
casualness, the man picked up his cleaning gear and followed...

CHAPTER THREE

     True to her word, Siress Belloby and her friend provided Starbuck
with everything that he needed to operate a java kiosk. Gaining
permission to set up in the Market Section was simple, since the whole
purpose was to promote free trade; all one had to do was provide a name
and a basic description of one's business to the general manager for
security purposes. Then, that person was free to stake out a location in
amongst the existing booths and kiosks. Provided it did not involve
something illegal, the merchant could peddle whatever goods or services
he or she wanted.
     With his java kiosk, Starbuck needed the basic equipment for both
processing the plant's beans and brewing the drink, as well as just a few
other items that would allow him - according to Belloby's friend, Torry -
to create various distinct and flavorful drinks, in addition to just
straight java. Since he would be relying on the _Rising Star_ for his
water and power, Starbuck would also have to pay a service fee each
secton.
     Although he had occasionally drunk the beverage with his morning
meal (usually only after a long night of drinking), Starbuck had never
cared much for java and, thus, knew very little about how to actually
make it. By the end of the first day, though, with the help of both
Torry and Siress Belloby, who, Starbuck quickly learned, *loved* the
beverage, he actually felt comfortable with all steps of the process.
And with the addition of Torry's key flavorings, Starbuck found himself
enjoying both making and drinking the java.

     "The Fleet's lucky, you know" Siress Belloby said as she, Torry, and
Starbuck locked up the stand at the end of the day.
     Starbuck gave her a quizzical look. "How so?"
     "There are enough people who need a cup of java each morning, that
if we hadn't been able to bring a supply with us," she said, winking at
him, "that there'd have been a massive rebellion in the Fleet long ago."
     "Fortunately, " added Torry, a tall man of about Belloby's age, with
graying black hair, rugged features, but a warm smile, "the java plant
grows quickly in almost all conditions - and has a very short germination
cycle -- so its fairly easy to always have a supply of beans available."
     Starbuck watched the other merchants closing down their own trades
for a moment. "Well, he said at length, "I guess we'll see tomorrow
whether people will actually buy a cup when they can get it free with
their meals in the commissary."
     "Ah, but don't forget," said Torry, pointing to the hand-painted
sign above the kiosk, "this is 'Rogelio's Gourmet Java.'"
     "Well, if this works, I'll owe you more than just a third of the
profits," Starbuck said, referring to the agreement that he, Belloby and
Torry had made.
     "No, no," replied Torry. "Rogelio, you and Siress Belloby are the
inspiration behind this. I would never have thought of it. And I
certainly would not have had the time nor patience to run such a business
myself."
     "Well, I still greatly appreciate your willingness to trust a
complete stranger -"
     Torry cut him off. "If the siress trusts you, then I trust you.
Enough said!"
     Starbuck smiled slightly as they departed and headed for the shuttle
lounge; he had not failed to notice the look that had passed between the
agro worker and Belloby.

******

     He had been skeptical. Everyone in the Fleet was allotted three
meals a day from their ship's commissary, which included access to all
the java they needed. Starbuck did not think that he could break even,
let alone make a profit, considering the fee he had to pay for water and
energy just to run his java machine. Very few would actually pay for a
cup of java. Or so he thought.
     He opened his stand the next day with a Starbuckian flourish,
proclaiming that if a person brought their own cup today (he had been
adamant about not washing any more dishes), that they would receive free
samples of his gourmet java brews. By midday, he could not make the
blends quickly enough. By the end of the day, he was completely
exhausted but happy. Several more days like this one, and he would,
indeed, be making a profit. Not that being successful at his venture was
actually necessary, since Belloby was covering all expenses, but the
gambling side of his nature hated to lose. Besides, he knew that a new
venture suddenly earning lots of cubits would attract the attention of
the 'Association' faster than insects on sweet nectar.
     Starbuck had a talent for reading people, at sensing who was honest
and who was not. It was a skill he had learned when growing up as an
orphan on Caprica. After yahrens living on the streets, in between being
bumped from one foster family to another orphanage, he *knew* how to
detect the criminal elements. In the period before joining the Colonial
Service, he had even spent several sectars with a gang, had watched in
horror as a casual theft "for fun" had turned into a cold-blooded murder
of an elderly woman, before fleeing from their deceitful influence. The
gang leaders had not thought kindly of his rejection of them, either, and
had searched for him for several sectons. That, along with a genuine
interest in learning to fly a viper, propelled Starbuck to enlist in the
service. The Academy was a safe haven, then; although, he continued to
watch his back when out on forlon, until he saw in the news where the two
leaders of his former gang had been killed by law enforcement in a bloody
battle.
     Very few knew of his brief involvement in the gang -- no one except
Apollo and Adama. He had told them in a rare moment of openness and
soul-bearing shortly before graduating from the Academy and after a
near-fatal accident involving his training viper, in which he'd walked
away with just a few scratches after his throttle had jammed; a few more
microns delay in correcting the problem, and he would have smashed into
the landing site at full velocity. Apollo had been surprised and upset
by the revelation. Adama had looked at him silently for a moment, as if
he had, somehow, already known, and had expressed his faith in his
integrity. That one moment, still, meant more to Starbuck than almost
anything else in his life.
     Thus, Starbuck knew exactly why Adama had chosen him for his current
mission. Still, when he had visited the Market Section as a customer,
the vendors had invariably put on their seller's faces. He had been able
to discern nothing about the general atmosphere. Now, he would be able
to approach them as a peer, and would be able to get a better sense of
who was content, who was nervous, and who might actually be a part of the
'Association.' If he had the time. The drawback to being successful was
that it meant that he could not be as vigilant as he needed to be. Nor
could he take the time to get to know the other merchants.
     He should have known better than to doubt Siress Belloby. Her
prediction that people would love the java brews had proven true by the
end of his second day. Had he not closed the kiosk for a midday break,
he would have probably have broken even, already. Nonetheless, profit
was secondary. He had to get out among the other merchants, had to, he
hoped, finally make some progress with his mission. The change in his
role did wonders. As he moved among the other kiosks during his break,
he encountered a variety of attitudes towards the Market Section's newest
shop owner. Some were complimentary, congratulating him on his almost
instant success. Some were openly jealous and less than friendly.
     All, in one way or another -- and no one seemed willing to elaborate
-- warned him to be cautious and enjoy his success. While it lasted.

*****

     "Lords," breathed Athena, plopping down onto the bench and wiping
her arm across her brow. "I don't know when I've ever been this tired in
a long while! Wait, yes I do. It was stumbling through the jungle on that
God-forsaken planet looking for someone who'd crashed their Viper!" She
tossed him a tiny grin.
     "Okay, so *Boomer's Nature Hikes* wasn't such a great idea. Anyway,
we can take a break," said Boomer. He gazed down at the lieutenant as she
yawned and stretched her back against the bench, her fingertips brushing
against the lush, flowering bush behind her. Not for the first time in
the past four days, Boomer felt a sudden and intense wave course through
him; every line, every curve as she moved made him...
     "No, we need to get as much of the inventory finished as fast we
can," answered Athena. She patted the bench seat next to her. "Here.
Let's get these lists updated, before Carmichael worries himself to
death."
     Boomer sat, keeping himself a respectable distance from Athena.
*Frak,* he chided himself, he was acting like a schoolboy! He was a
seasoned professional on duty. He wasn't Starbuck; he didn't mix duty
with oogling over...But even as he tried to make eye contact with her,
the feelings surged through him again. It was too much. He had to say
something, had to ask, had to know if she...He would not, would not do
anything to ruin their friendship. No. They had agreed to take it slowly,
to go out socially and get to know each other before continuing with any
sort of physical relationship; that was the way things were supposed to
be done, Boomer had reminded himself. Over and over and over again. It
was the way he had been raised and the reason he had silently disapproved
of Starbuck's attitude and behavior towards women. He was not like that.
He --
     "Boomer?"
     Her voice interrupted his tumult of thoughts, and he realized that
he had been staring at the ground. He turned to look at her, to gaze at
her beautiful face. And felt his heart pounding a kilometron a micron as
he studied her puzzled expression. "Athena, can we --?"
     Without warning, she leaned in and kissed him. Not just a quick
peck, either. Boomer, stunned, felt his eyes go wide for a moment before
he melted into the kiss, wrapping his arms across her shoulders. After a
long centon, Athena pulled back. "Sorry," she said softly, gazing
staright into his eyes and looking anything but sorry. "But I've been
wanting to do that ever since we got here."
     Boomer laughed; the sudden release of all the unnecessary tension
was almost palpable. And here he'd been worried..."What about 'taking it
slowly?'" he asked finally. .
     Athena smiled softly and ran a finger down his cheek. "To Hades with
slow," she whispered. Her face turned serious. "I've thought about it. A
lot. We don't know what will happen tomorrow - or in the next centar,
even. And..." she grasped his hands in hers, pulling his palms up to her
face. "...if we wait, we may never get the chance. So, it's turbos all
the way"
     "You sound like --" Boomer stopped abruptly. *No that wasn't the
thing to say.*
     "Like Starbuck?" Athena finished the thought, and Boomer pulled back
and looked away, embarrassed.
     "Yeah," he mumbled, but when he turned back to face her, she was
grinning.
     "Yeah, it does! She said. "But I learned the lesson the hard way.
Did you know," she began, the smile fading a bit, "that Starbuck came to
me - during those horrible centars right after the Great Destruction -
and proposed? Yeah. Starbuck."
     Boomer shook his head and stared at her. "No, he said. "I didn't. So
what happened...?"
     "I turned him down and pushed him away." Her eyes clouded briefly
with the memory. "And he ran to Cassiopeia."
     "Do you regret turning him down?" There. Boomer had to ask that
question. For his own peace of mind.
     Athena hesitated for a brief instant, "Not anymore," she said, "Oh,
for awhile I kept brooding about it, but it was really more from
selfishness. You see.....I just had a bad reaction to Starbuck's
attitude, because I expected him to give me a little time after I turned
him down, but.....just a couple cycles later I spotted him and Cassiopeia
on a monitor making out in a launch tube."
     Boomer suddenly felt his memory jogged about something. "That steam
burn he got before the Nova Madagon mission! Did you give him that?"
     She smiled crookedly, "You'll never tell him will you?"
     "It'll be our secret," he said, "But....you really don't regret it
any longer?"
     "No way!" Athena's smile widened, and Boomer felt as if he could
blast out of his boots. "I realized, eventually, after things settled
down and I could objectively watch how Starbuck acted with Cassiopeia...I
realized that we would never have worked out. We're just too different.
Still..." She grasped a hand again and gripped it tightly. "I did learn
that he was right about one thing."
     "And what's that?" Boomer grinned stupidly at her; the relief, the
passion, the incredible joy that he felt at that instant was threatening
to overwhelm him.
     "You have to seize the moment." Athena whispered. "And...Boomer...I
love you. I *need* you."
     Boomer could only gaze at her. No words could express what he felt
at that precise micron. So, instead, he leaned in, pulled her against him
gently, and kissed her. As she gripped him tightly and melted into the
kiss...growling? Boomer felt like he was soaring through the Heavens.
     After a long centon, he reluctantly pulled back. It was by the grace
of the Lords of Kobol that they had not yet been interrupted . . fate? He
wondered briefly, then forced himself to get a grip on his emotions.
     "We'd better get back to work!" Athena said for him, laughing as she
bounced to her feet and straightening her uniform. She looked anything
*but* tired, now.
     Boomer stood, just in time to see Pili rounding the turn by the
flowering bush. "Yeah." he breathed. He felt the boundless energy, too.
Hades, he could have been assigned to scrubbing turboflushes and he'd
have still felt ecstatic at that moment. "Back to work!" he said with a
grin.

******

     For Starbuck, the next day was as busy, if not more so, than the
previous one. Many of the previous day's clientèle returned because of
'Rogelio's' charm as he chatted with all of his customers and playfully
flirted with some, both young and old. The constant crowd at his kiosk
was impossible to overlook.
     More than one pair of eyes took notice.
     By the time he took his midday break, Starbuck felt too exhausted to
walk around the Market Section. Instead, he hung his 'Closed until 1400'
sign, pulled out a chair, and plopped down into it to watch the people
pass by as he ate the meal he had packed. *Lords, who knew brewing a
drink could make me so tired?* At first, he scowled, looking down at his
food, which reminded him of the survival rations he'd had to rely on as a
Cadet in desert survival training, and was about as tempting. Then he
returned his attention to crowd. The flow of faces was ever changing as
people came and went. He began to recognize, though, who were the
merchants, who were the regulars that hung out at various stands, and who
worked in the various subsidiary positions , such as security,
maintenance, and sanitation.
     As he let his eyes wander around, Starbuck suddenly felt his nerves
prickle, sensing that someone was watching him. He let his gaze settle
on the kiosk that was off to his right and focused on what he could see
with his peripheral vision. There. Over beside the next stand. A
custodial worker kept staring his way. When Starbuck looked directly at
the man, their eyes locked for the briefest of moments before the worker
turned away, seeming to concentrate on picking up the trash left behind
by the crowds of people. Starbuck continued to stare, however.
Something was odd, something was not quite right about the man, but he
could not pin point what. He wore the standard dark blue maintenance
worker's uniform. Even from a distance, he could see that his hair was
grey, his face visibly older, he had a patch over one eye, and he walked
with his back hunched and with a slight limp. And he looked perfectly
innocuous, now. Starbuck shook his head, attributing the odd sensation
to exhaustion and nerves. Nonetheless, he decided to keep a watchful eye
on the man, as much as he could, to notice where he went, what he did,
and with whom he spoke.
     Tossing his empties in the trash, Starbuck decided that as soon as
this mission was over, the first thing he would do would be to enjoy some
real food. That, and savor crashing into his bunk without having to
shuttle back to cramped quarters aboard The Colonial Movers with a
mattress on the floor that had little more cushioning than a throw rug.
His tired mind was still pondering these thoughts as he entered his kiosk
and started to prepare for the rest of the day. As he reached to remove
the "closed" sign, however, something caught his eye. A piece of
recycled paper lay just behind the sign, and a note was scribble across
it. Slowly, he picked up the paper and read the handwritten words: *be
at storage compartment delta, lower level, Deck 5, at 2100. Tell no one.
Failure to follow this directive will result in most unpleasant
consequences.*
     *Frak,* he thought to himself. Despite his resolve, despite his
vigilance, they had slipped by him. He pocketed the slip, hoping to
perhaps scan the handwriting later for a possible ID. At least, though,
he seemed to finally have their attention.
     "You opened again yet?"
     The voice made Starbuck jump, and he silently cursed himself for
being caught off guard -again, within a mere five centons. *Must be
getting old!* He switched on his trademark grin and turned to face the
awaiting customer. "Of course," he said, not even flinching as he came
face to face with the elderly custodial worker. "What would you like?
Today's special is the Mocha Java Twist."
     The man pursed his lips in thought. As he waited, Starbuck studied
the worker with a quick sweep of his eyes. Up close, his hair was
thinning and unkempt and his chin was covered with grey stubble, which
partially concealed a deep scar. His one visible eye was a pale brown,
the other was covered with an old, worn patch, and he squinted up at
Starbuck from his bent-over stance. Worn, wrinkled fingers, covered with
burns and scars, drummed the counter of the kiosk as he seemed to ponder
what he wanted. Starbuck noted his name plate, which read "Rollin."
     "I hear you sell good stuff," the man said at last. His voice was
rough and uneven, as if speech was a difficult prospect.
     Poor old cripple. An old Warrior, for sure.
     "Only the best," answered Starbuck. "Fresh from the finest harvests
on Agro Ship Two. Not that freeze-dried, reprocessed stuff they give out
in the commissaries." The lieutenant grinned. "So what'll be?" Outwardly,
he was in full character - Rogelio the Java Impresario. But inwardly, he
was racking his brain. Something wasn't right. Something, as he looked at
the elderly man, made his instincts tingle. It was as if he knew the man,
from somewhere...but the feeling was too elusive to pinpoint.
     "Well, this one," said the old cripple, pointing to one item on the
menu, "sounds good." This java mix, mingled with hot Borellan spices, was
known as *The Falernian Flameout.* Raising an eyebrow at the old man's
choice, Starbuck quickly whipped up the requested drink and passed it
across the counter. The custodian paid and took a sip. His remaining eye
widened as the hot liquid hit his tongue, and after a few slow gulps, he
let out a sigh of satisfaction. "Lords uh Kobol! Haven't tasted one of
them since muh Academy days. Good mix!"
     "Academy?" asked Starbuck.
     "Yeah. I was a Warrior, once. Can't ya tell? Crashed muh Viper, and
damn near didn't make it out, neither."
     "Excuse me," said a lady behind Rollin. The worker turned and, with
an old-fashioned bow of the head, stepped aside to let her proceed.
     "Ah, Carter," said Starbuck, recognizing a face from the previous
day, a lovely lady with whom he had spend more than a few centons
flirting. "Cinnamon, right?" She nodded, and he set to.
     He glanced up to see the line steadily growing longer and sighed.
Rogelio was back to work. At the very least, as he had discovered the
day before, the assortment of people he met was anything but boring. The
next one asked endless questions, and at last Starbuck got a word in
edgewise: "Forty-two, sir. Forty-two flavors in all. And what was the
question?"
     Still, keeping his eyes purely on his work was difficult, for
Starbuck had a natural tendency to wander when beautiful women were in
range. He nearly dropped a cup, though, when Aurora, with some man he did
not know, bellied up to his kiosk, and ordered a cup each. Another acid
test, he decided, but it passed. Aurora, after a quick look, plainly did
not recognize him. She and her date both downed their Magrathean Mega
Mochas in peace, leaving a rather nice tip. Starbuck had to hide a smile,
as he listened to their conversation, his back to them mixing yet another
java.
     "I don't know, Brian. I mean, does it matter what is the meaning of
life?"
     *That's my Aurora,* he mused. *Always the philosopher.*
     "Oh Lords!," said her companion, pointing across the kiosk area.
"It's Arthur again. Still wearing that funny robe."
     ""Bet that didn't make much of a dent in his budget," laughed
Aurora. She finished her java, tossed the empty towards the trash bin,
missed, and left.
     How do you like that? Starbuck shook his head in amazement. I
spent that whole time on the Celestra telling that nut Damon how he
couldn't let Aurora get away from him, and it looks like he lost her. No
wonder that guy was too dumb to lead a successful mutiny.
     As if he were a bird of prey diving onto a hapless rodent, Rollin
suddenly appeared, to remove the offending object.
     "Here, Rollin," said Starbuck, leaning down, "let me give you a
hand."
     The man smiled, nodding his appreciation and ambled off. Starbuck
watched him go, noting that the strange sensation from earlier had
vanished, then turned back to the waiting customers with his trademark
grin, ready to spread more of the Starbuck charm...still, the words on
the note burned in the back of his mind. *Soon,* he told himself, *soon
we're finally going to get this show moving.*

CHAPTER FOUR

     Starbuck wrinkled his nose as he stepped off the turbolift onto Deck
5. The air smelled dank, musty, as if the filtration system had not been
serviced in a long while. Coughing slightly, he surveyed the corridor
which ran each way about 10 metrons before branching off in several
directions. Stepping over a pile of unidentifiable refuse, Starbuck
moved slowly to his left, on instinct rather than on any true knowledge
as to where 'storage compartment delta' might be located. A faded sign
on a dirty bulkhead at the branch in the corridor indicated that his
desired location was most likely off to his left again, then down another
passage to his right. He walked with careful steps, quietly, listening
and peering into the obscure, dark shadows; the lighting came only from
the emergency red strips along the top of each side of the corridors.
Probably to conserve fuel, reflected Starbuck, since there was little
need to keep standard lighting in these seldom-used passages.
     Starbuck, hands in his vest pockets, fingered the transceiver in his
left pocket as he walked. He would have felt a whole lot more confident
facing ruthless killers had he been armed with more than just a tiny
piece of electronics. Sure, the _Galactica_ could pinpoint his exact
location and would record any conversations, since the device was
voice-activated. But he would have much preferred a weapon. 'Rogelio,'
however, was hardly likely to walk around carrying a military-issue
laser.
     By the time he finally found 'storage compartment delta,' his nerves
were on edge and his heart racing, despite the knowledge that he was
probably not in any real danger. Not this time, anyway. They would be
looking to take a chunk of his profits, not to put him out of business.
Still...He glanced at his chronometer. Two centons early. He focused on
listening instead of trying to see into the dark shadows. The sound of
the not-so-distant engines, however, droned steadily through the bulkhead
and made discriminating faint noises next to impossible. They probably
knew that, too, mused Starbuck, as he decided to just lean back against
the wall and wait. He took several slow, deep breaths in an effort to
calm his nerves; at least, 'Rogelio' would look suitably anxious -
     "Good. You've got the sense to be prompt."
     Starbuck snapped his head in the direction of the voice and took a
quick step forward. Out of the shadows to his right stepped three
figures. Starbuck stared, saying nothing, taking the brief opportunity
to study his opponents. They wore nondescript blue maintenance uniforms
and a black mask that covered the head, thus concealing any recognizable
features. And all three held lasers pointed at his chest. The only
discernible differences were height and build. All were male. One was a
little taller than Starbuck but thin, wiry. And the hand that held his
weapon twitched slightly, Starbuck noted. The one in the middle was
probably a bit shorter than he was but was stockier. The last one
towered above them all by two heads, at least, and was powerfully built,
like an *Ursus*.
     The man in the middle stepped forward. "Since you are new to the
Market Section," he said, "there are a few things that you need to be
aware of. Two simple rules, actually."
     Starbuck remained silent. The voice sounded tinny, unnatural to
him, and he realized abruptly that it was being electronically altered.
*Frak,* he thought, *so much for voice recognition.* Still, maybe the
_Galactica_'s computers would be able to identify *something* from the
recorded transmission, as well as from the handwritten note.
     "Rule number one," the stocky man, who was obviously the ring
leader, continued, holding up his left index finger. "Tell no one about
this meeting. No one." His voice was calm, matter-of-fact. "Or we will
kill you."
     Starbuck nodded but said nothing. It took all of his training to
keep his breathing calm, to keep his mind focused on the details, as he
stared past the three lasers and met the man's masked gaze. Apparently,
though, he should have been quaking in his boots; without warning, the
*Ursus* took two giant strides forward, yanked the front of Starbuck's
tunic with his free hand and slammed him back against the wall. He
rammed the laser under his chin. "Is that clear?" he said, his voice
even more of a low growl after being electronically altered.
     "Yes," Starbuck croaked. Breathing, let alone speech, was difficult
with a laser jammed against his throat. And his head and back were
throbbing from the abrupt contact with the bulkhead. After a centon or
so, *Ursus* released him and stepped back. Starbuck slid to the floor,
gulping to replenish his oxygen supply.
     "Rule number two," the stocky one continued. "You give us half your
profits, and not a cubit less. Is that clear?"
     "Half...yes, quite clear." Starbuck climbed slowly to his feet,
supporting himself against the wall, still, and feeling as if he'd been
blasted down the launch tube without his Viper. "How will I...?"
     "Same time tomorrow, same place, bring the money, in cubits" The
man lowered his laser but spoke slowly, deliberately. "And don't forget
Rule Number One."
     "Tell no one!" said Starbuck quickly, holding up his hands, as Ursus
took a menacing step forward again. "I got it. I got it."
     "Good." The ring leader's voice dripped with smug satisfaction.
"Welcome to the Market Section. Oh, and if I were you, I'd stay here at
least five centons before even thinking of leaving." *Ursus* laughed --
a bestial laugh -- and fired his pistol. It burned a hole in the deck
next to Starbuck's right foot. With his own laugh, the stocky man turned
and disappeared back into the shadows, followed by *Ursus*. The thin one
pointed the laser at Starbuck for a moment longer, his arm visibly
trembling, before hurrying off after his companions.
     Starbuck closed his eyes, let out a deep breath, and slid back down
the wall, coming to rest with his head in his hands. *Frak,* he thought,
*Frak, felgercarb, and mong.* "I'm fine," he said aloud, finally
remembering that the transceiver was still activated. "Just...fine." He
gave a quiet and brief verbal description of the three, then slipped a
hand into his pocket and turned off the device. He leaned against the
wall and took slow, long breaths, trying to refocus himself, trying to
remember anything -- any detail -- that might help him to identify the
men later. The obvious was *Ursus*'s size. It couldn't be that
difficult to track down all the possible suspects of his stature. Fleet
records included physical traits - eye color, hair color, and height.
Plus, he ought to stand out, should he be someone who worked aboard- or
even frequented - the _Rising Star_. Ought to. . . yet, Starbuck could
not recall seeing anyone like him during the past five days.
     The others, well, that was a different matter. Half the men in the
Fleet were probably about their size, mused Starbuck. The only other
trait remotely notable was the thin one's trembling hand. Was it nerves,
and itchy trigger finger, or something more? An illness, perhaps? As he
pondered the man, picturing him in his mind, something,
something...seemed vaguely familiar, as if he had seen him before.
Something about the way he stood, the way he moved, the unsteady hand.
Starbuck sat well beyond the mandated five centons, racking his mind for
a memory, a further connection, to help narrow down the feeling, but
without success.
     At length, he took another deep breath and pulled himself to his
feet. Lords, he was tired. And sore. His back ached, his head
throbbed, and his throat felt tender, painful where *Ursus* had pressed
the laser against him. Hard. With a brute strength that Starbuck had no
desire to take on in hand-to-hand combat, should it ever come to that.
He glanced at his chronometer. Almost 2200. 'Rogelio' still had a
business to run the next day. Still had to shuttle back to _The Colonial
Movers_ to catch a few centars of sleep - if that were possible - before
facing the morning crowd eager for their gourmet java. The price of
success. *The next time I think of some wild business venture,* he
thought to himself as he walked slowly down the dark corridor, *like
hiring a singing group, I'll just have Apollo...or Boomer...remind me of
this...*

**************

     Sleep, as he had suspected, would not come. After tossing and
turning and pacing back and forth in his tiny quarters for three centars,
Starbuck finally gave up, got up, dressed, and headed to the communal
facilities, where the turbowash, automated nutrition dispensers, and the
ship's public communications center were located. After a few centons in
the turbowash, blasting hot water in his face, he felt vaguely better.
Leaving his long, damp hair hanging loose, he dressed again and made his
way to the communications center. He had to talk to someone. Had to find
out what, if anything, was being planned. If nothing else, he needed
reassurance that the transceiver had, indeed, done its job, and that
Adama and the others were aware of his next scheduled meeting with the
'Association.' He started to log on as himself, but stopped. These men
were devious, intelligent, and had obvious access to some fairly
sophisticated technology. The voice-altering devices. The implied
threat that they could monitor his daily profits. Add to that the need
for strict security, and he didn't doubt that they had some way of
monitoring him - somehow - even on board his residential ship. After
all, a fair number of the other merchants also lived aboard _The Colonial
Movers_. No, any transmissions had to be legitimate. Perhaps he was
being paranoid. or maybe he wasn't being paranoid enough. But until he
knew he had some form of backup in place, he had no desire to test his
theory.
     So he logged in as "Rogelio" and sent a message to Siress Belloby,
requesting a meeting with her and Torry concerning supplies, stating that
he would be over at the Agro ship at 1300. As he logged back off, he
hoped, fervently, that - provided she received the message in time -- she
would remember that they had previously agreed that "requesting a
meeting" meant for her to arrange for someone from the _Galactica_ to
meet with him. Revealing to Adama that he had included the siress in
their mission had been risky, but he had wanted...needed ...another way -
besides the transceiver - to communicate.
     That task completed, he purchased a breakfast packet and a cup of
standard-brew java from the food dispenser and sat at a table, pondering
his current circumstances. How they might know the amount of his
profits, in some respects, was obvious. For the most part, business
within the Fleet was conducted through electronic transfers of credit.
Some merchants in the Market Section accepted currency or even bartered
for an exchange of services or merchandise, but the majority simply used
their Fleet-issued access codes to transfer funds electronically. It was
easy, no cubits to carry around, and one's balance could be checked from
any of the communications consoles. Personally, Starbuck preferred the
weighty comfort of cold hard cash, but circumstances were circumstances.
And that was how his java kiosk operated - electronically. It was also
obvious, then, that at least one, or more, of these people had enough
skill and knowledge to bypass security measures to monitor operations in
the Market Section. Thus, they would know exactly how much half of his
current profits would be, no doubt.
     If they could hack into the system, he wondered briefly, why they
didn't just steal access codes and withdrawal all the cubits they wanted
from unsuspecting person's account? *No, that wouldn't work,* Starbuck
reminded himself. Because then the victims would have no qualms about
reporting the theft. This way, the 'Association' could use intimidation
to silence their victims. *He* withdrew the money from one of the many
terminals in the chancery, *he* handed the cubits over to the thugs, and
*he* only reported it if he wanted to end up murdered in the lower
levels...
     Starbuck sighed and glanced at his chronometer. Time to head back
to the _Rising Star_ for the morning Market crowds. Maybe, just maybe,
he'd be able to spot *Ursus,* but he doubted it. These Boray breath were
way too smooth to make such a simple mistake.

*******

     "Mmmmmmmmm, I think I could get to like this disciplinary duty,"
said Athena, after a slow kiss from the man next to her.
     "Well, like I said," replied Boomer, trying to quiet himself down,
"it sure isn't the worst duty in the Fleet. Posted to a veritable
garden,with a beautiful woman."
     "Like the Garden of Creation, almost," said Athena, her minxish
smile threatening to turn into a laugh.
     "Well, I can't say my thoughts are all that innocent," smiled Boomer
back. "And as for the Forbidden Fruit..."
     "So, you find me a 'peel' ing?"
     "Ewww!" Boomer winced. "That was terrible. You been getting your
humor off the IFB again?"
     "Trust me, even I would never sink so low, Boomer."
     "That's good to know. Now," he asked, nudging a little closer to
her, "just how low would you sink?" He nudged a bit closer, finding the
scent of her hair intoxicating, even in the midst of all the plants now
flowering in profusion about them. He reached out, grasping a white
blossom of a species long extinct in the Colonies, and put it in her
hair. She smiled, reached out for him, and...
     "At-hee-nuh," said Pili, coming around a pile of crates. Inwardly
cursing at the shattering of the moment, the two Warriors returned to the
matter at hand. For her part, Pili was obviously not oblivious to what
she had just stepped into. She and her consort, the other stow-away,
Kudur-Mabug, were themselves hardly acting like chaste postulants, and
Athena had stumbled upon them the day before, in a somewhat invidias
position. Instead of showing the usual reaction, however, the primitive
woman smiled the uninhibited smile of the socially unsophisticated.
     Athena would have to talk to her about that.
     "Yes?" asked Boomer, trying not to make it sound like a growl.
     "I have plants you want," she replied, her Colonial improving with
each passing day. She set her burden down, a case containing a variety of
small plants in containers. Each of these, they noticed, were either
unknown in the Colonies, or had long ago gone extinct. Predictably, Agro
Chief Carmichael had flipped to discover living specimens of
long-vanished species, and had set the two in the daggit-house Warriors
to cataloguing them. For now, their Kian names would serve, until the
botanical chief could assign proper scientific designations to them.
      Of course, it was not all one-way. As they moved through the
samples, and the Kians described the ones they knew, Boomer taught them
the Colonial words for each part and function, thereby working the
language lessons into the day's duty. For his part, Kudur-Mabug, l was
taking to reading faster than expected, and had already learned to
discriminate between one box, crate, or container and another by the
writing on them.
     "I hope they're all right," said Athena, after logging the scan of
another previously unknown plant.
     "Who?" asked Boomer, trying to pull a sticker out of his finger.
     "The rest of the Ngishgi, back on Ki. I can't help but wonder how
they're doing."
     "Pretty well, I'll wager," replied Boomer. "We worked to advance
their society by over...what? Maybe five thousand yahren? From Stone-Age,
to Early Agricultural, with wheeled vehicles and the beginnings of
metallurgy. True, we only had a couple of sectons to do it in, but the
way they took to what we had time to teach them was incredible. And with
a land empty of any other people, they'll have no real competition to
their growth for ages. Millenia."
     "Not to mention none of those firedrakes," added Athena. She
shivered, and not entirely theatrically. She turned at a question from
Pili.
     "Fi-ur dray-ke?"
     "Yeah. Um...ushum," Boomer answered, recalling the Kian equivalent
word. From there, it was more words, sentence structure, syntax, and
plants. After a while, Boomer noticed Athena's frown, and asked about it.
     "Apollo."
     "What about him?" asked Boomer, puzzled.
     "He didn't answer."
     "You called him?"
     Yeah, earlier this morning. We're planning a little family
gathering, soon. Zac's natal day. Quiet and subdued, of course. I called
Apollo to ask him something, and he wasn't available. All Colonel Tigh
would say was that he was on a special assignment, and he'd get back to
me." she shook her head, "That didn't sound right, so I took a gamble
and called Sheba. She couldn't help either. If she doesn't know, then I
guess he really is tied up in something serious. They....don't keep many
secrets from each other. That I have learned."
     "I've noticed," Boomer admitted, "The last couple sectars, whenever
she and I have flown patrol together, she's been.....well like a new
woman completely."
     "Well, I like to think I helped give her a headstart on that. It
was my idea that she confront Apollo before he and Starbuck flew that
mission to infiltrate the baseship. She told me later that finally got
him out of his shell and made him start to admit what he's been feeling
about her ever since she came to us."
     "That was good advice. I hope they get sealed eventually."
     "I have the feeling Boxey's their last major obstacle before they
even think of doing something like that. I get the feeling they're
having difficulty on that point. Sheba's actually been looking at old
vid-tapes of Serina's BNC broadcasts to try and pick up some insights."
     "Well, I'll let myself play the optimist and just hope for the best
on that."   Boomer then decided to shift the conversation back, "So if
Sheba didn't know where Apollo was, why not ask the Commander?
     "Hip-deep in Council felgercarb."
     "Lords help him!" said Boomer, looking upwards. "Athena, I'm sure
it's just a communications mis..." He stopped, as Carmichael appeared,
carrying an armload of notepads and other equipment. After that, it was
back to work, times ten.

*********

     He arrived at _Agro Ship Two_ and hurried to the area where Torry
kept his java plant crop. Except for a few distant workers, though,
tending the other sections, he found no one. No one, not Torry, not
Siress Belloby, not a soul from the _Galactica_. He stared at his
chronometer. He was twenty centons early. Feeling an urge to pace,
Starbuck nonetheless forced himself to sit on one of the benches along
the walkway to wait. He had to appear composed, had to appear casual, as
if meeting Siress Belloby to discuss routine business. He took long,
slow breaths to calm his nerves and the rising disgust at himself. He
was a professional. He was trained to handle everything from routine
patrols to space battles where he was out numbered 3 to 1, to covert
missions that involved infiltrating Cylon cities. He'd walked into the
heart of a Cylon baseship, for Sagan's sake, and returned without a
scratch. So why was he so flustered, so unsettled, now? The difference,
he knew, was his opponents; they were ruthless and devoid of any concern
for anyone, except themselves. They thrived on abusing and tormenting
others. And they were human. In the Cylons, he could accept this; after
all, they were just soulless machines, following their programming. They
killed efficiently and with a thoroughness that was terrifying, but were
incapable of "enjoying" what they did. These people, though, took a sick
pleasure from pain. As a Colonial Warrior, he had vowed to protect
humanity, had risked his life countless times - for what? For barge lice
like *Ursus*? So that these men and others like them could destroy the
Fleet from within, like a slow-spreading cancer, or virus?
     But that was only part of it, Starbuck realized. In all other
situations, since he'd joined the Academy, he had always operated as part
of a *team,* be it in daggit fights against the Cylons or when dropping
into the heart of enemy territory. This time, he was alone and cut off
from the very people he had counted on over the past yahrens. The last
time that he had felt this...this *isolated* in the face of an imminent
threat was right before he joined the Academy, during those sectars when
he had been on the run from the gang. Then, he had long forgone the
foster care system and had been on his own, living by his wits on the
streets of Caprica. He had joined the gang for the same reason that so
many young people did - because he sought acceptance and a place to
belong, others upon whom he could rely and trust. He had quickly learned
the cold truth - that those adolescents valued trust, loyalty and human
life less than a cheap fumarello, and it had nearly cost him his life
trying to escape that mess.
     He glanced again at his chronometer. Ten centons until the
requested meeting. He took several more deep breaths to shake off the
tension and reminded himself that he was not alone. The commander and
the others would have heard the transmission, would have pin pointed his
location, would be doing everything they could to identify those three
goll-monging thugs from the 'Association.' He fingered the note in his
pocket. This, perhaps, was the most solid piece of evidence. If the
computer could link it with a suspect -
     "There you are!"
     Starbuck jumped. Then he gave Siress Belloby a wan smile. He had
been so engrossed in his thoughts that he had not seen her approach - not
very vigilant for someone who needed to watch his back. Not that they
would be keeping an eye on him here, or even knew that he had come, but
still...*Lords, how I hate feeling this paranoid!* Starbuck let out a
disgusted sigh.
     "You look awful," noted Belloby, eying him as she sat down on the
bench beside him.
     "Thanks," quipped Starbuck. If he looked like he felt - after
basically no sleep in over 30 centars - no doubt he was quite a sight.
His gaze flicked around and behind the siress.
     "It's just me," she said quietly, then more loudly: "I brought the
inventory list. Here take a look." She handed him a compupad.
     Starbuck took the hand-held computer and tapped the power button. He
waited till it had scanned his thumbprint. A message appeared on the
screen and he scrolled through it, reading it slowly, carefully:
*Previous transmission recorded and processed. No results as of yet.
Proceed as directed but take no further individual action. A specialized
team will be in place to handle the situation.*
     Starbuck read through the brief directive three more times before
lowering the device and looking back at Belloby. "Looks good," he said
at last. "That should cover everything I need." He slipped his hand
into his vest with the stealth of a pickpocket and handed her both the
compupad and the handwritten note.
     The Siress' eyes widened slightly in surprise as she felt the piece
of paper but with equal grace, slid both into the pocket in her skirt
without comment. "Right, then," she said, standing up. "I'll get you
everything you need." She turned and strolled off towards the shuttle
bay.
     Starbuck watched her disappear around the curve in the walkway,
behind the rows and rows of talon which grew next to Torry's supply of
the java plant. For a moment, he let himself feel the disappointment
that no one from the _Galactica_ had actually come to meet him, but then
reminded himself that it had been far safer and easier to send the
message via Siress Belloby. He pondered the likelihood of someone
actually watching him or listening to his conversations; he felt a bit
foolish speaking in such covert terms, when it seemed so remote a
possibility that anyone from the 'Association' would bother to monitor
'Rogelio's' comings and goings. Still, it would take just one mistake,
one slight slip up, to make them suspicious - too suspicious. And they
could not afford to risk that.
     With a sigh, he stood and made his own way towards the shuttle bay.
He had his answer, at least. This would be it, then. The trap would be
set, the snare ready to spring, no doubt, after the meeting, after
'Rogelio' had handed over half of his current profits and after he was
out of the crossfire. His part was easy, then. The bruise on his throat
reminded him to act sufficiently scared and meek, but otherwise, he saw
no reason for them to harm someone who was providing them with such a
lucrative mealticket. *No problem. No sweat,* he told himself. So why
did he have such a foreboding sensation growing in the pit of his
stomach?

CHAPTER FIVE

     Maybe it was the fact that Starbuck knew, finally, what the plan
was. Maybe it was the adrenaline rush from knowing that there was a good
possibility that these snitrads were about to be caught. Maybe it was
simply that he'd been able to catch a few centar's sleep after returning
to _The Colonial Movers_ and before heading back to the _Rising Star_ to
withdraw the needed cubits from the chancery. For whatever reason,
Starbuck felt more relaxed, more confident, as he made his way through
the lower passages to 'storage compartment delta.' The familiar
anticipation had replaced the earlier sensation of trepidation; if they
wanted 'Rogelio' to shudder in fear, he'd give them that, but the game
would be his, in the end -- if the gamble paid off. The odds were in his
favor, though. He was ready this time.
     He slid a hand into his left front vest pocket to activate the
transceiver. As he walked, he glanced around, assuming a nervous air,
pausing, watching, listening, then moving cautiously forward again. He
carried the bag bulging with cubits tightly in his right hand. Half his
profits. Were he actually intending to stay in business, he would never
have made it, not with these golmonging Boray siphoning off this much of
his proceeds. He wondered for an instant if this were the standard
demand, or just some sort of "initiation fee." Probably the latter, he
imagined, because they needed the merchants to make just enough profit to
be able to continue, or they would put their own racket out of business.
     He stopped as he finally reached the storage compartment, listening,
feeling his heart thumping from the expectancy. A glance at his
chronometer showed that he was early once more, by five centons. He let
himself pace, looking anxious while keeping a close eye on the shadows.
This time he saw the flicker of movement before they emerged from around
the turn in the corridor several metrons down from the indicated meeting
place. They wore the same dark masks and nondescript uniforms as before,
with gloves concealing their hands, as well. Unidentifiable, except for
*Ursus'* dominating size. The ringleader strolled slowly but purposefully
one pace ahead of the other two, with thin one on his left and *Ursus* on
his right. As before, three lasers pointed towards his chest.
     Starbuck stopped and raised his hands, the bag of cubits clinking
against the bulkhead as he pressed back against the wall, offering a
position of submission. The leader nodded slightly and the thin one
rushed forward, grabbing the bag, yanking it unceremoniously from
Starbuck's grasp, his shoulder moving up and down as he laughed silently.
He walked back to his associates, then tossed it to his boss. The man
caught it and took a deliberate step closer, hefting the cubits in one
hand, testing and evaluating their weight, while the laser remained
steady in his other hand.
     "Feels about right," the man said at length, producing a portable
electronic scale. He plopped the bag onto it and waited while the device
hummed. "I am assuming that you know better than to try and short change
us." The scale beeped, and he laughed softly. "Had you done so, you would
have found life as short as your change!" The skinny one began to laugh,
a cackle really, and his movements became even more fidgety.
     "That's good, Boss. Short changed, and his life gets short!" He
cackled again, a laugh Starbuck would have found annoying at the best of
times.
     "Shut up!" ordered the leader, and the other one did, like switching
off a speaker. The man cocked his head at Starbuck. "Very good, Rogelio.
You're honest. To have tried to cheat us would have had
most...unfortunate consequences for you."
     "Uh, yes," Starbuck said, glancing from one thug to another, "yes,
sir..."
     "Good," the electronically-altered voice rumbled. He continued to
stare - or Starbuck assumed he was staring, since his eyes, already
obscured by the mask, were concealed by the darkness.
     Starbuck tried to gauge what kind of reaction the man wanted. He
shifted from foot to foot. "It's all there. Put me in debt with my
supplier, too -"
     "Is that a complaint?" The rumble had turned to a growl.
     "No, no!" Starbuck said quickly. "I was just, uh, wondering -"
     "'Wondering' could be dangerous," growled the leader. "Better to
just shut up and do as you're told." The man took another deliberate step
forward. The other two followed suit and approached slowly, forming a
tight, menacing circle around their victim.
     Starbuck grinned nervously. The ominous feeling had returned, along
with the realization that it didn't matter how he reacted. They weren't
going to be satisfied with just a quick payment. That would be too
simple, too easy. "Hey, look...I'll do whatever. I just --
     "He talks too much, don't you think?" The leader turned to look at
Ursus, who nodded slowly.
     Starbuck took a deep breath and bit his lip, considering his options
and not liking anything the next several centons were likely to offer up
his way.
     The thin one edged forward, the laser shaking visibly in his hand
again. "I bet he's got more than just that one bag on him."
     "Yes," said the leader, thoughtfully. "And perhaps we need to make
sure that he... *understands* -- the only profit that counts is the one
that we make." He paused, then waved his laser casually. "Empty your
pockets."
     Starbuck fought the urge to curse. He slipped his hands first into
his vest, then into his trouser pockets. He pulled out the five stray
cubits he had and turned his pants pockets inside out. For good measure,
he slipped off his chronometer and held the lot out in both hands.
"That's all I've got, I swear -"
     The thin one moved forward as if to take the offering, but *Ursus*
slapped his arm against his chest to stop him. "No," he growled, in a
voice reminiscent of a thug in an old gangster melodrama. "That's not
good enough."
     Starbuck took a deep breath and let the cubits and chronometer
clatter to the floor as *Ursus* took yet another step forward. The huge
man slipped the laser into his waist band, then rumbled, "I don't trust
him."
     "My thoughts exactly," responded the leader, his voice cold and
smug.
     A chill ran down Starbuck's spine. This was *not* how he had
imagined they would react, not this time, not when he had just given them
more cubits than they probably collected from all the other merchants put
together. It didn't make sense, not one bit. He stared from one assailant
to the other, silently, trying to gauge their next move and wondering at
just what point his backup would intervene.
     The leader appeared to be enjoying his victim's obvious distress and
made no move for nearly a centon. Then, he nodded almost imperceptibly.
*Ursus* burst forward. Starbuck tried to duck, tried to dodge forward and
run; he knew in an instant that they intended not just to rough him up
but to search him first. That had not been in the game plan.
     *Ursus,* despite his bulk, swirled with the grace of a trained
athlete, grabbed him by the shoulder with surprising dexterity, and
yanked, pulling him back like a rag doll. He clasped Starbuck's arms
behind his back and held him securely, while the other two approached.
The leader pressed the laser under his chin and scowled, "Going
somewhere, java man?"
     Starbuck glared at him but said nothing.
     The man stepped back so that the thin one could move in. Hands
searched their victim, feeling for any concealed valuables, hands that
obviously knew well their trade. Starbuck held his breath as the man
examined his vest, running his fingers along the inside seams first, then
patting the pockets, then reaching quickly inside. He almost missed the
transceiver, since it was so thin and was attached to the side of the
pocket; it felt almost like a part of the fabric. Almost. Fingers brushed
against it and past it...then back again. Gripping the small rectangular
patch, the thin one ripped it out of the pocket.
     "What's this?," he muttered, turning it over, examining it, but
failing to decipher its purpose. He tossed it to his boss.
     The man studied the device for a moment, then stared at Starbuck
with a rising anger visible clearly from the tensing of his muscles, the
slight tremble in his hand as he closed it over the transceiver, crushing
it, and flung it to the floor. He smashed the small patch with the heel
of his boot as he whipped off his mask. Sweaty, unkempt red hair
surrounded an equally red face boiling with rage. "Why you, frakkin'
piece of mong - you're wired!"
     "Samuels," Starbuck whispered. The antagonism made sense now.
     Samuels, the laser seemingly forgotten, stood nose to nose with
Starbuck, and screamed, "Just who are you? Frakkin' insolent snitrad -
think you know better than me at my own business, think you can rub it in
my face with your fat-astrum frakkin' smugness by running some stupid
java stand." His eyes bulged with barely-controlled fury. "Well, look
where you are now!" Samuels spat in his face.
     Starbuck blinked but remained silent as the disgusting, warm fluid
dribbled down his cheek; all of his Warrior training told him that any
chance he might have for survival depended on keeping a level head and
analyzing the situation. The thin one, he noticed out of the corner of
his eye, was close to a panic attack. The wiry man pulled off his own
mask, revealing close-cropped black hair and a face concealed by a
scraggly beard. He flung the mask to the floor and paced furiously for a
micron before grasping Samuels' arm.
     "We've got to get out of here!" he cried through clenched teeth. His
hands shook and his eyes radiated fear.
     All at once, Starbuck felt a flash of relived events - he had seen
that man before. He knew him --
     "Wax him! Kill him!" Samuels screamed, breaking Starbuck's train of
thought. "Now! There's an auxilliary airlock, one deck down. Dump him!
Then get out of here, Wilmer!"
     "But that'll set off an alarm on the bridge, boss. We..."
     "We'll all be gone before anyone gets here. By that time, java man
here will be floating in our wake. Space garbage." The barkeep grabbed
the other by the arm and turned to run, not waiting for *Ursus.* They
vanished into the shadows.
     *Ursus* did not seem to care that he had been abandoned. With one,
smooth motion, the man trapped the Warrior in a strangle hold, locking
one arm behind his back and lifting him off the deck. Starbuck, feet
dangling, clawed feebly with his free hand at the arm crushing his
throat. He felt the growing, burning tightness in his chest and the
building roar in his ears as the microns ticked by. *Ursus'* grip was
unrelenting.
     "Go ahead. Struggle," he rumbled. "I kind of like the exercise.
Doin' it slow is an art, ya know? A real challenge. Here, let me show
you."
     He laughed and started increasing the pressure with a deliberate
slowness. Starbuck felt his eyes bulging, his vision narrowing. The roar
in his ears was overwhelming; the pressure on his spine, his mind noted
with a random, detached thought, would snap his neck before he
suffocated...
     All at once, the pressure vanished. Starbuck felt himself tumbling
to the deck, gasping, struggling to suck in enough cool, blessed air.
Eyes squeezed shut, he gulped and coughed for several moments, aware of
nothing else but the urgent need to fill his starved lungs. Eventually,
sounds filtered through the haze in his brain, footfalls and voices. A
familiar voice. Hands were at his shoulders, his back, propping him up as
he still gagged and coughed. . . Starbuck opened his eyes and blinked
rapidly to clear his vision.
     "Are you all right?" a voice asked. That familiar voice.
     Starbuck stared around him, his brain still not quite making all of
the appropriate connections yet. *Ursus* lay near him, either unconscious
or dead. Someone still held him steady from behind, and someone else was
kneeling in front of him, talking...but the voice did not match the face.
It was...where had he seen him before?
     "Starbuck? Are you okay?"
     Starbuck stared in confusion at the man, at the wrinkled face, the
grey hair, the eye patch which now hung around his neck...that
maintenance worker in the Market Section! But, his voice was
different...why did he sound like --?
     "Starbuck, it's me!" The man pulled off the grey wig. From
underneath, black hair straggled free. Green eyes gazed in concern.
     "Apollo?" Starbuck whispered. Then his face broke out into a broad
grin.
     "Yes!" Apollo said, relief, finally, flooding in. "Are you okay?" he
asked, as he peeled away more of his disguise. The scarred chin, the bad
teeth, one by one all the elements that had made up "Rollin" were being
stripped away.
     Starbuck rubbed his aching throat; it felt raw. "More or less," he
answered in a whisper, since it hurt like Hades, at the moment, to talk.
"How did you...?"
     "You didn't really think that we'd send you into this all alone, did
you? I've been doing what I could to handle the security."
     "Why...?" Starbuck frowned at his friend.
     "Why didn't we tell you?" asked the Strike Captain, as he peeled off
his horrid, fake nose. "Because we couldn't risk any sort of slip up. I
couldn't be connected with you in any way, or someone, somehow, might
pick up on that. We just had to play it safe."
     Starbuck glanced at the still form of his would-be murderer and
whispered, "Cut it a little close, I'd say."
     Apollo looked apologetic. "Sorry about that. We positioned men at
all of the exit points on this level right after 2100, since we couldn't
risk them spotting us ahead of time. But then, we had to make sure that
you wouldn't be caught in the crossfire before we could do anything. When
they didn't let you go, we couldn't just rush in. They could just as
easily have grabbed you as a hostage, and then this mission would have
been an impossible mess."
     Starbuck shook his head. "It already was a crazy mess, but
thanks..." He locked his eyes with Apollo's. "Thanks, buddy."
     Apollo stood and offered him a hand. Starbuck let the captain pull
him to his feet as he gazed around, finally taking in the scene. *Ursus*
was groaning and starting to come around. Two men, dressed in black
fatigues, were in the process of securing him. One fastened shackles
around his wrist. The other pulled the hooded mask off his head. Starbuck
stared at the face; he had the vague sensation that he had seen it
before, that he ought to know this man, as well. The effort, however, was
too much for his weary mind. The adrenaline rush had abated, and his head
and neck throbbed painfully with every movement. He let the thought go.
     "Who are they?" he asked at length, motioning towards the two other
men.
     "Rawls and Stenson, from Colonial Security. The Commander put
together a specialized team from both Council and Colonial security
forces." Apollo placed a hand on Starbuck's shoulder. "Come on," he said
quietly. "They can handle him. Let's go."

******

     Apollo and Starbuck emerged from the turbolift into the _Rising
Star_'s docking lounge to find three more of the black-clad security
force surrounding one prisoner. Samuels, Starbuck noted with
satisfaction. He sat with hands and feet shackled, and his face was
nearly purple with rage. Apparently he was beyond words, though, because
his lips were clenched tight, his jaw clamped shut, and the veins in his
neck and forehead bulged as he breathed in ragged snorts.
     "What about the other one?" Apollo asked one of the security guards.
     The man shook his head in frustration. "Got away. We've sealed off
the lounge and all exits and have asked everyone to remain in their
current locations while we try to track him. But, so far, nothing.
There's been no trace of him. It's as if he just vanished."
     "That's it!" muttered Starbuck.
     "What?" Apollo turned to his friend and gave him a quizzical look.
     "Dravius! That other man was the same one - that lunatic -- that
Boomer and I ran into on the _Spica_," Starbuck answered in an excited
but raspy whisper. "He changed his hair and face, but I remember, now,
all of those nervous movements."
     Apollo sighed. "And he vanished, then, too. Felgercarb," he
muttered. He studied Starbuck for a moment, taking in his battered and
weary appearance, before nodding towards the exit. "Let's get you back to
the _Galactica_. You look -"
     "What? Rogelio! You're frakkin' alive!?" Samuels' screech
interrupted the Captain. The man tried to stand, but the guards pushed
him roughly back into his seat as he glared at Starbuck.
     It was too much. He had put up with too much *mong* from the man
over the past five days to just ignore him. "That's right!" Starbuck
responded as he brushed off Apollo's attempt to hold him back and
strolled over to the man. He yanked the barkeep to his feet with both
hands and glared at him eyeball-to-eyeball as security stared but did
nothing to stop him. "And the name's 'Starbuck.' 'Star-buck.' Got it?
Decorated Colonial Warrior. Holder of two Gold Clusters. Hero of
Carillon, and infiltrator of BaseShips. Hero. Not barge-lice like you,
you murdering piece of daggit mong! I'll be drinking vintage ambrosa
while you're rotting away on the Prison Barge -"
     "That's enough," said Apollo, pulling his friend back.
     Starbuck released Samuels, dumping him towards the seat, which he
missed, landing astrum first on the deck, and stormed off through the
exit to the passage that led to the landing bay.
     Apollo stared after his friend, shaking his head. "I'll send the
shuttle back," the Captain said, finally, to the closest security guard.
"Right now, I think it's wise if we keep those two away from each other."
     The guard raised his eyebrows but said only, "Understood."

****************

     As the passenger shuttle _Canaris_ drew further and further away
from the _Rising Star_, Dravius began to relax for the first time in the
past centar. If anyone had an inkling that he was aboard this shuttle,
then it certainly would have been forced to return to the luxury ship,
where a Security detail would have been waiting for him. Given the
attention he'd attracted ever since the circular calling for his arrest
was distributed more than two sectars ago, they would never have risked
letting the Canaris proceed to its next destination before detaining him.
     *Damn it all,* he thought with disgust. *Just when I'd settled into
a comfortable operation with Samuels, with a new face and identity, this
had to happen! What now? What now?*
      The first thing he'd have to do would be the nuisance of changing
his appearance yet again. He'd made the blunder of taking off his mask
before he'd made his escape and that meant a full description of how he
looked now would be out shortly. He could only hope that no one had made
the connection between Samuels' henchman and the man wanted for the
long-ago theft of priceless treasures from the Libran Antiquities Museum.

     Not for the first time, he wondered if he should take a chance and
go to the IFB and implicate the man who had been the mastermind behind
the heist. Sire Antipas himself. But he knew that without proof to
directly tie the Council member to the theft, it would just be his word,
and if it became clear that he had been involved with the Association and
could be implicated in the termination of several people, even
implicating Sire Antipas in the Museum theft, might not be enough to save
him from the death penalty. Now that the Baltar statute had gone into
effect, restoring the death penalty for all capital crimes of termination
and treason against the state, he knew he conceivably faced the ultimate
penalty.
     So what were his options now, then?
     He knew that his chances for survival would be vastly improved if he
could locate any one of his three compatriots who had broken into the
Museum and stolen the entire cache, that on Sire Antipas' orders, they
had then guarded for safekeeping, with each holding onto one-quarter of
the treasure. Antipas had hinted that all three were still alive
somewhere in the Fleet, each of them still protecting their share of the
treasure for the Councilman. But all of them undoubtedly had new
identities, and none of them had any clue as to the whereabouts of the
other.
     But there were things Dravius knew about each of his partners in
crime. Details that would have to be there in the Fleet Personnel
records, of which they had to be logged in under their new names and
identities. If he could search those records and find clues to where any
one of them were, he might find the new breakthrough to his chances for
survival that he desperately needed at this point. Direct proof
implicating a _Rising Star_ in the Fleet like Sire Antipas would go much
further then just his word alone.
     So be it, he vowed. Wherever he got off, the first place he intended
to go to after shaving off his beard and changing his hair yet again,
would be the nearest computer terminal for the beginning of some long
research.

********

     "Dravius. Are you sure?" Adama frowned up at Lieutenant Starbuck as
he finished his verbal report.
     "Positive," he answered. "He might have looked different, but he
acted the exact same way that I remember from the _Spica_." Hands waving
as he spoke, Starbuck paced in front of the commander's desk, while
Apollo sat perched against a small chest of drawers towards the back of
the office. Colonel Tigh stood to the left, watching the two Warriors.
Both were still in disguise, having come straight from the shuttle to the
Commander's office for the debriefing. Starbuck may have been battered
and exhausted, but he knew that he would not be able to rest until they'd
had this meeting.
     Adama's frown deepened, and he keyed his console. A moment later, a
voice said, "Stenson here."
     "Status of the search for the other suspect?"
     The security guard's sigh was audible even through the comline.
"Nothing, sir. We've found no trace, but we'll continue the search for
another centar or so."
     "Right, keep me informed." Adama pursed his lips and gazed up at
Starbuck. "It would appear that Dravius has once again slipped away."
     "Frak," spat the Lieutenant. Then he quickly added, "Sorry,
commander!"
     Adama shook his head. "A fitting expression, I'd say, considering
the circumstances." He turned towards his son. "Anything you need to add?
I realize that you both are probably quite eager to see Dr. Salik and
return to your old selves, as well take some well-earned rest.
     "Amen," muttered Starbuck, fingering his long, black strands and
running a hand through the still unfamiliar beard. *Too itchy,* he
thought to himself. He cast his eyes at Apollo, who looked almost comical
with his thick, dark brown hair contrasted against his face and hands
still showing traces of his "Rollin" makeup. His eye color had been
changed with a colored lens, which he'd removed earlier, so familiar
green eyes returned the look. The stooped back, the limp, and the voice,
Starbuck had learned on the shuttle, had all been an act. Still, he had
one last question. "So, Apollo," he said, "if you were supposed to be
watching me without my knowing it or having the chance to recognize
you...why'd you actually approach the kiosk?" he asked, remembering their
exchange and his war story. "What if I'd recognized you?"
     Apollo chuckled. "I had faith in Dr. Salik's work. Besides ," he
said, "you kept looking at me. I had the feeling that by staying away, I
was actually making you suspicious."
     "Yeah, you were," said Starbuck, remembering the odd sensation -
which now made sense.
     "So I had to put you at ease, somehow. And the only thing I could
think of was to let you know who 'Rollin" was."
     Starbuck grinned at his buddy. "Yeah, well, if the IFB got wind of
your performance, they just might grab you for one of their melodramas."
     Apollo rubbed at his wrinkled face. "No thanks! I'll be glad when
I'm back to just being me."
     "Lieutenant," said Tigh. "We'll need your formal report as soon as
possible so that the two we arrested can be processed. You'll also have
to give a deposition, most likely, to Chief Opposer Solon."
     "My pleasure," responded Starbuck, scowling at the memory of the
three thugs. He would take great delight in participating in their
tribunals - especially for Samuels. And it had turned out that Starbuck
had been right about *Ursus,* aka Wilmer. The huge man had been an
athlete. Security had finally identified him. Wilmer, a successful
professional wrestler from Piscera, had also worked as an enforcer for a
major crime boss and had been wanted on suspicion of murder, just a few
days before the Holocaust. In all the confusion, he had naturally
disappeared. Starbuck recalled seeing one of his title matches when on
furlon.
     "However," the Colonel said, smiling, "you might be pleased to know
that for the next secton, you are officially on furlon - to give you
plenty of time to enjoy your vintage ambrosa and to rest up after your
'adventure.'"

     "Some 'adventure,'" the Lieutenant mumbled, unconsciously rubbing
the aching muscles on the arm that Wilmer had stretched nearly out of its
socket. He started to make a flip comment.
     At that instant, the door chime sounded. The Warriors glanced at the
entrance, and Colonel Tigh raised an eyebrow as the commander called,
"Enter!."
     A micron later, Cassiopeia strolled into the office.
     "You sent for me, Com--" she started to say, but then caught sight
of Starbuck as she rounded the corner. She stopped. For a moment, she
just stared at him, her expression unreadable, as if she wasn't sure it
were really him. Then, slowly, she took a deep breath and a smile crept
over her lips.
     "I'm back," he said with a grin.
     She rushed into his waiting arms. "Starbuck!" she breathed as she
buried her face in his shoulder, squeezing him tightly against her.
     Starbuck closed his eyes and squeezed her against him too. Suddenly
he felt both exhausted and relieved - greatly. After nearly a centon, he
drew her back to gaze into her eyes. "I missed you, too," he whispered;
until that moment, he had not realized just how much he *had* missed her.
Perhaps it explained the certain *edge* that he had felt throughout the
mission, when he had felt so isolated...unsettled. Unlike any other time
that he could remember, even when he had been stranded on Atilla or held
prisoner on Baltar's basestar or locked up in the Proteus Prison. No,
something had been different this time. . .
     Eyes closed, he pulled her into his embrace once more, savoring the
feel of her warm, soft skin, drinking in the irresistible fragrance of
her hair, and then hungrily finding her soft lips to kiss ...with more
passion than most would dare in front of their commanding officers.
     Neither cared.

EPILOGUE

     "You really didn't have to come down here, Lieutenant," Zeibert was
saying as he led Starbuck into the storage compartment on the _Rising
Star_'s lower deck where crates of food stuffs and ambrosia were kept. It
was day one of his secton-long furlon, and he intended to make the most
of every centon - starting with collecting the three bottles of vintage
ambrosa that the chief Steward had promised him.
     "Oh yes I did," Starbuck said, rubbing his face and feeling grateful
to know that he was finally himself again (almost, excepting for the
lingering dark hair color) after the long days of being alone and
disguised. "Not that I'm suspicious or anything, Zeibert, I just felt I
a need to see this stuff retrieved for myself."
     "Of course," the Chief Steward sighed as he came to the back of the
compartment where a caged door separated the next part of the storage
compartment from the rest of the room. Zeibert took out his security
access card and ran it through the side panel, which caused the door to
unlock.
     They entered and Starbuck saw how dark it was in this section, with
more crates stacked up all around. Zeibert had to take out a pocket
illuminator to make their way forward. "Here we are," he said as he
knelt down in front of several crates that Starbuck immediately
recognized, "The Proteus collection. We have a total of 20 crates back
here that were generously contributed to us by the Protean population."
     "20?" Starbuck lifted an eyebrow, "I remember them bringing back 200
crates of that stuff, one for each member of the population."
     Zeibert smiled thinly, "Eight crates have been completely consumed
in the yahren since, Lieutenant. The rest are....how shall I put it,
being sat on for now by the Proteans who brought them. Eventually, they
know they will receive more money for their treasure once our initial
supplies dwindle. They were all content to part with just three bottles
from their particular case originally to give them enough money to get
started in their new lives. And at more than fifteen hundred cubits a
bottle, it was quite sufficient to get them started."
     "Oh boy isn't that the truth." Starbuck rolled his eyes and thought
again of how he had missed out of getting a stash for himself to utilize
when the warehouses on Proteus had been destroyed in the Cylon attack at
the end of the mission. Tens of thousands of crates had gone up in the
inferno that followed the crash of the Cylon fighter into the warehouse
complex.
     "However, you gave me your word that these three bottles would be
for drinking and not for resale," the Chief Steward pointed out, "I hope
that is still clear."
     "Oh yeah, it is, it is."   Starbuck said reassuringly. He'd had
enough of making business deals for quite a while, he reflected briefly
as Samuels' snarling face flashed through his mind. It had only taken a
few centars to find a replacement to operate 'Rogelio's Gourmet Java'
kiosk, so that it could continue to operate and allow Belloby and Torry
to collect the profits - the least he could do for their help.
     The Chief Steward knelt down and used a crowbar to pry open one of
the crates that Starbuck recognized from Proteus. The top came off and
Zeibert set it aside. He then looked down and frowned. "Well now, that's
odd."
     "What?"
     "Look," he pointed down.
     The Warrior looked down and he frowned as well. There were bottles
of ambrosa lining the sides of the crate, but the center contained
completely different contents. Starbuck immediately recognized a leather
bound book, a rolled-up parchment, and what looked like an antique
billfold.
     "Looks like someone's personal effects." Starbuck was surprised,
"Where did those come from, and why would someone stash them in an
ambrosa crate?"
     "This crate has been sealed since the day it was sold to us,
Lieutenant," Zeibert noted, "Whoever these things belong to, it has to be
someone from Proteus."
     "I guess so," Starbuck picked up the book and opened it. The pages
were slightly yellowed and brittle, but they did not break. He frowned
when he saw handwriting in a language he didn't recognize at all. It was
completely alien to him. He flipped through several more pages and saw
the same thing.
     Then, he came to a page where there was no writing, but sketching.
And his heart froze in disbelief at what he saw. "Holy Frak," he
whispered.

*****

     A centar later, the thoughts of drinking the ambrosa forgotten for
the moment, Starbuck was in Adama's office aboard the _Galactica_, where
the Commander was going through the items in stunned fascination.
     "You're sure this sketch is the same one you saw in your cell on
Proteus?"
     "Absolutely," Starbuck said, "Right down to the last detail. And
you can also compare it to the description of Earth's solar system in the
Testament of Arkada and the other ancient writings."
     Adama was trying to keep his feelings restrained, "This so-called
'Silent One' as Robber described him, turns out to have left us a
not-so-silent legacy. There's no doubt this is some kind of handwritten
journal, kept in his own language. He must have planted it in an ambrosia
crate at one time to keep the Enforcers from confiscating it and
destroying it." He set the notebook down, "This small book could easily
tell us everything we need to know about how far away Earth is along this
heading."
     "Is there any hope of translating it?" Apollo spoke up for the first
time, awed by this discovery.
     His father shook his head, "That's our problem, Apollo. I can't make
out a single word of this. That tells us that the language of Earth has
evolved considerably from what was ancient Kobollian. It may take the
most expert of linguists to be able to decipher just a random word or
two, if there are any connections that can still be found."
     "Do we have any experts in the Fleet?" asked Apollo, as Adama went
through each item again. Besides the journal, there were a set of metal
tags, similar to what Warriors once had worn, for identification
purposes. Like the journal, the words they bore were unknown to any of
them. Between the journal's pages were two photographs, old and yellowed,
one printed, bizarrely, without colors. It showed a smiling couple in
what looked like antique sealing robes. The color one was of the woman
with a small child in her arms. The writing on the back was the same. The
billfold had contained what was obviously some sort of paper currency, as
mysterious as the rest of the finds. And, a translucent plastic disk,
with no label or printing of any kind.
     Adama sighed, "I'm sure we do, Apollo, but I wouldn't put too much
hope in what they can realistically accomplish. It may be that before we
can figure out what this account says, we need to find something else
first. Something that won't be found until who knows how much longer
we've progressed on our journey."
     Both of the warriors finally realized the magnitude of what he was
saying. Their eyes were fixed on the small parcel of objects spread out
on Adama's table.
     "Can you believe it?" Starbuck shook his head, "All the answers
staring us in the face in that one little book, and we can't do anything
with them."


*Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny, the last Battlestar, _Galactica_, leads
a ragtag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest. A shining planet.....known as
Earth.*

July, 2004

				
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