"Over here!" Apollo's shout drew the other Colonial Warriors to his side. The sounds of the battle still raged around them, distant laser fire pushing the Cylon base personnel further into the hills beyond the compound. It was a temporary victory, but a vital one.
Commandeering this tiny planetoid's Cylon base had been a long and costly operation, but Apollo had personally overseen it. Somewhere in this ugly, metal-grey complex, his closest friend was imprisoned.
Boomer was breathing hard as he approached the sealed door where Apollo stood. "You think Starbuck is in there?"
Apollo nodded. "Just pray he's still alive."
It was a Cylon cold cell: the only one in a block of refrigerated prisons that was closed and locked.
"How do we open it?" The question came from Athena.
"Find the locking controls."
"I got 'em," Boomer announced from a short distance down the corridor. He threw a switch, and the door swept open, letting cold, frosty vapor escape into the hall. Apollo and Jolly plunged through it and returned, microns later, with an unconscious Starbuck between them. "Get us a shuttle, Boomer," Apollo ordered. "He's alive. But he's going to need a med tech -- fast."
Boomer nodded and disappeared down the corridor at a run.
Some time later, Lt. Starbuck opened his eyes in the Galactica's med section. The first thing he noticed was that a dull pain was drumming a steady rhythm in the back of his head. The second was that he was still cold.
From somewhere, a voice said, "He's awake." Two faces hovered over him; one Cassiopeia's, the other that of the Galactica's chief neurosurgeon. What was her name? Devara...
That was it.
"How do you feel?" Cassie asked.
"Head hurts," he said absently. "So does my arm."
"I don't know about the headache yet," Devara told him. "But your arm is just from the tests. I'm afraid we had to take several blood samples"
"Needles," Starbuck complained. "You people and your needles. One of these days..."
"One of these days you'll quit complaining," Cassie interrupted. "You're an incurable coward, Lieutenant."
"I'm sorry to have to ask," Devara said more seriously, "but what can you remember?"
Starbuck closed his eyes and tried hard to recall the last few agonizing days. He could recall nothing. Only the cold.
"It's all right," Cassie told him. "Just rest now. You'll be able to think more clearly later."
But when later came, he didn't think more clearly at all. Nor could he remember... anything.
He didn't tell them that the headache had never gone away. There didn't seem much point, and anyway, they'd never have allowed him out of medical section if they'd known. Better to say nothing. The pain would surely diminish in a while, and in the meantime, he could still perform his duties.
He was in the communications center when the headache began to grow worse. It had slowly become a sort of fog: a mental cloud that obscured his thoughts and replaced them with... demands. The fog made demands.
Starbuck tried not to answer. But the fog took hold of the pain in his head and wrenched it into sheer, unmitigated agony.
He did what it had asked of him.
* * *
The voice belonged to the surgeon, Devara. And when he obeyed her request that he open his eyes, he found Apollo and Commander Adama looking down at him as well. He was back in med section.
Apollo glanced ominously at his father before speaking. "You don't remember?"
Struggling to sit up over Devara's protestations, Starbuck said, "All I remember is a pyramid-sized headache."
Again, the exchange of glances. Puzzled, Starbuck added, "Why?"
Adama sounded as though he were addressing a tribunal. "According to chief communications officer Horus, you turned on the deep space emergency beacon."
Starbuck blinked, disbelieving. The emergency beacon was intended for use only as a distress call -- when there had been other Colonial battlestars to hear it. Now, its use could only serve to tell every Cylon within the beacon's range precisely where they were.
"The Cylons already had our location," Apollo offered, echoing his thought, "when we attacked the planetoid base."
"But they had no way to know which direction we'd gone," Adama countered. "Until now."
Starbuck fought to make sense of the confusion through the ache that still throbbed at the base of his skull. "Why would I turn on the emergency beacon? Why would I tell the Cy--?" He let the sentence die, afraid to voice the conclusion he was sure the others had already reached without him.
"That's why I can't remember, isn't it?" he asked Devara, not even trying to mask the horror he felt. "What is it? What did they do to me?"
Solemnly, she handed him a scan-print with the outline of a human skull, brain, and something else... Ringed in white at the base of the scan was the tiny metallic sliver of something that didn't belong there. A Cylon brain implant.
Starbuck stared at it in revulsion for several microns. He'd seen these devices before. The Cylons often used them to mentally control the more recalcitrant subjects of the planets they enslaved.
"I wish I could tell you we knew how to undo this," Devara said haltingly. "But I'm afraid this is a micro-surgical technique we've never even begun to explore. The implant is apparently an active transmitter/receiver, but its location in the brain is extremely... delicate. By any technology we know, it appears to be inoperable. I'm sorry..."
Apollo was unwilling to accept that as final. "There's got to be a way, at least to neutralize the transmitter. There's got to!"
"We'll do everything we can." The surgeon's tone had become marginally more optimistic. "We can keep the headaches subdued with sydrine until then."
"Yeah," Starbuck said weakly. "More of your needles. Somehow, the joke wasn't funny any more.
Adama drew his son out into the corridor. Apollo, watching his friend as he moved away, saw Starbuck crumple the scanner print into a ball and heave it across the room.
"This is not an easy thing to say," Adama told his son. "But I'm left with an unpleasant choice regarding Starbuck As long as that implant is aboard this ship, the Cylons will know precisely where to find us. They didn't need the beacon. That was a test -- to see if they could make him obey their commands. And it worked."
Apollo looked at him, uncertain how to answer. He, too, knew what the choices were. And he didn't like them either.
* * *
Sedated by the sydrine, Starbuck slept. Somewhere in the midst of a pleasant dream about Cassie, however, the fog had begun to return.
He heard noises in the room around him. The surgeon. He could see her now, through half-opened eyes, cleaning an instrument on a medical table across the room. Slowly, soundlessly, he got out of the bed...
Devara heard something behind her and began to turn. Before she could, a hand pinned her own behind her, and an arm was thrown roughly around her neck from behind, relentlessly tightening until it had cut off her wind.
"Stop it!" a voice shouted, and other hands began to jostle them. "Starbuck, for gods' sake, let go! Starbuck!!"
Cassiopeia forced his hands down, dragging him bodily away. He stopped fighting her when she had separated him from the gasping surgeon, and allowed her to lead him docilely back to the bed Somewhere in the distance, an alarm had been set off. One of the med techs must have called the bridge.
"Are you all right?" Cassie went to Devara's side, concern and terror both evident in her voice.
The surgeon nodded. "I will be. Just let me catch my breath."
Apollo came through the door then, responding, no doubt, to the tripped alarm. "What's wrong?"
"It was nothing," Devara lied. "A misunderstanding, Captain. Nothing more."
Apollo, obviously unconvinced, moved to the bed where his friend lay curled in a fetal position. "What was it, Starbuck?"
The lieutenant held one hand at the back of his head. "They wanted..." He winced. As soon as he had spoken, the pain had intensified.
"What, Starbuck? What did they want?"
"...wanted me to kill someone. Anyone. Didn't care who."
He reached out to grasp the captain's arm, a grip that tightened and eased again convulsively. "Apollo..."
"It's all right. You didn't hurt anyone." He looked at Cassiopeia for confirmation and received a tight-lipped nod in return. There were tears in Cassie's eyes.
"No..." Starbuck began to grow more lucid as the pain began to fade. "Apollo, I need your help."
"I'll do anything I can. You know that."
"I want the long range recon viper. I want to go back... to the planetoid."
"I've got to go. It's the only way."
"And what do you think you'd accomplish there? The Cylons will be crawling all over it again by now. My father would never authorize another mission. You know that."
Starbuck released his arm then, disappointment in his eyes. "I've already endangered every human being in this fleet," he said dismally. "Your father can't afford to risk keeping me aboard for long. Not as long as this thing is--"
Fire seared through his brain; a white flame that obliterated everything -- the room, the people -- everything but the pain. He never felt the sting of Devara's hypodermic, but as the tranquilizing rush of sydrine began to subdue the beast raging in his head, he thought he heard Apollo say, "I'll try, Starbuck. I'll try."
He knew that Apollo would try. But he also knew Adama too well to believe he would ever agree to the plan. There was only one other way...
Centons passed before Devara left the med section. Starbuck waited until the med tech left in charge had disappeared into an adjoining room to file something. Then he left the bed, slipped out into the corridor, and headed for the lower launch bays and the dressing lockers.
* * *
Flight Commander Armon wondered why Lt. Marus had arrived so early for recon duty with his gear and helmet already on. It wasn't until the pilot was seated in the long-range viper that he recognized the face behind the lighted helmet.
"Starbuck? What're you doin' here? I thought Marus was on recon."
"Yeah, well, he was. We traded patrols. There was this pyramid game, see..."
Armon looked doubtful. "Uh-huh. You don't mind if I verify this?"
"No problem. Go right ahead."
Armon walked back to his communications console, unaware that behind him, Starbuck had closed the recon viper's canopy. By the time Armon's connection to the bridge was made, the long-range viper had moved an inobtrusive distance down its track. When the commander turned around, it was to see the craft already speeding on its way down the launch tube.
Starbuck knew they would come after him. At least, he knew two of them would. There were only three of the specially-modified long-range vipers in the fleet so far, and he was flying one of them.
Hastily, he fed the navi -computer his destination co-ordinates and set the controls on auto-pilot. Ordinarily, he would never have trusted the machine with such a task. But just now he distrusted his own head a great deal more.
Voices started coming over his comlink. The chase vipers. Apollo's voice asking him -- ordering him -- to turn back. Starbuck didn't respond.
He was surprised when he recognized the second voice on the comlink as Devara's. He hadn't known the doctor was also a pilot...
* * *
Apollo gave up trying to make contact, and signalled Devara to follow Starbuck's viper into the unnamed planetoid's sector.
"Stay on him," he ordered. "If we don't, you can bet the Cylons will."
He'd no sooner uttered the words than four Cylons appeared on the scanners in front of them --trailing Starbuck.
"Two and two," Apollo said. "I don't think we can count on any help from Starbuck. He's flying the unarmed prototype."
"Split and bracket them. Course forty degrees port. I'll take starboard."
Devara felt the powerful craft surge beneath her as they veered and bracketed the Cylons, two of them had taken note of their presence and turned to fight while their companions began firing at Starbuck. She artfully evaded the first volley, thankful that the recon viper had been designed to outmaneuver anything the Cylons flew, and pressed the firing control until the tracking lasers crossed paths with one of the raiders tailing Starbuck. It exploded into a satisfying fireball, and she saw Apollo dispatch two more of them in short order.
"The last one's off your port bow," he signalled.
"I've got him."
The raider lined up head-on in Devara's scanner grid and fired at her. The viper bucked with the impact, but held together. With warning lights flashing on her console, Devara depressed the firing stud, shooting blind and missing. The recon viper took another hit before Apollo's lasers intervened and sent the last Cylon ship into oblivion.
"Thanks," Devara breathed.
"Any time. You all right?"
She made a hasty equipment check, "I'll make it." There were still red lights on the panel, but the viper was flying, and for now, that was all that mattered.
They were met with no further resistance as they followed Starbuck down to the surface. Apparently, the Cylons had not yet fully recovered from the daring Colonial raid that had freed Starbuck from this place just a few days ago.
The base headquarters was ostensibly deserted. Landing near Starbuck's already-abandoned viper, they entered the building with their lasers drawn, following hand-scanners toward the only human reading in the area. They found Starbuck a few microns later -- with his laser aimed at a smiling Cylon overlord.
The lizard-like creature, a member of the race that had once thrived on Cylon before their own robot creations had begun to outnumber them, looked up at their arrival.
"Ah," he croaked smugly. "More visitors. How lovely."
"Shut up," Starbuck said levelly, incensed at the creature's sarcasm. "You have a way to remove this implant, and you're going to tell me -- or so help me, I'll fry you right here and now."
The Cylon flexed taloned fingers. "But of course," he said, and touched a control on the console in front of him. A door came open at the left end of the room, and though three laser pistols automatically swung toward it, the figure that appeared in the doorway wasn't Cylon. It was a female Turavian slave. She wore a medical smock over her scant native clothing, and a white surgical cap covered the bony ridges of her skull.
"Meet your surgeon, human," the Cylon sneered at Starbuck. "Her name is Sirva. And her race has become quite proficient at our finer surgical processes. Brain implants among them."
The Turavian's dark eyes met Starbuck's, and he read both contempt for the Cylons and pity -- for herself or for him?-- somewhere in their depths.
"All right," he said to the leering overlord. "She and I are going back into that lab and take this thing out of my head. And my friends are going to keep a laser aimed at yours. No tricks."
I wouldn't dream of it." His talons reached for another switch. "I will open the door."
Starbuck saw the ruse too late. When the switch clicked over, the pain lanced through his head and he cried out, driven to his knees on the steel grey floor. The laser tumbled from his hand. The fog began to strangle him.
Apollo fired a warning shot over the Cylon's head. "Turn it off!" he shouted.
"You will both drop your weapons," the overlord said calmly. "Or I will kill him."
Starbuck cried out again, hands pressed to his head.
"Stop it," Apollo pleaded. "Damn you -- stop it!"
Beside them, Starbuck moaned, fell prone onto the floor, and lay still. Sirva took several steps toward him, but stopped midway, her courage failing.
"Put the lasers down," the Cylon ordered again, and his finger hovered expectantly over the switch.
Apollo was sorely tempted to try and put a hole through his lizard brain before he could carry out the threat, but he knew he wouldn't succeed. The stand-off was a total one. He nodded to Devara, and reluctantly, they both dropped their lasers.
"Excellent," the Cylon gloated. He walked past Starbuck's motionless form to stand before the two warriors he had just so-brilliantly defeated. "I will see that each of you receives an implant of your own in payment for your wise decision."
Only Sirva, still standing behind him, saw that Starbuck, unnoticed on the floor, had begun to stir. Silently, his hand moved to the fallen laser, closed around it, turned it in the direction of the overlord's scale-covered back...
Without hesitation, Starbuck pressed the trigger. The bolt struck the Cylon dead-center, and he toppled forward, lifeless before he'd even had time to gasp.
The three of them were beside him then; concerned hands helping him to sit up.
"Bring him to the lab," the Turavian instructed them. "I can remove the implant."
"I have a better idea," Devara said, and gave Starbuck another sydrine injection, this time without protest. "If you can perform the operation aboard the Galactica, we'll take you back with us."
"I'm for that," Apollo added. "Sticking around here is definitely a bad bet."
As though in answer to his statement, the echo of approaching Cylon feet came from one of the outside corridors.
"Let's go," Apollo said, and pulled his friend to a standing position. They had to support him out an opposing door -- the same door they'd arrived through. The hum of Cylon scanners followed close behind them.
Starbuck's feet found the strength to support him before they were out of the building. They ran, trading shots with their pursuers twice before breaking into the open to head for the waiting vipers.
Starbuck guided Sirva toward his own while Apollo kept their attackers at bay. She was standing on the viper's wing when a second set of Cylon warriors appeared from another door of the complex.
Devara shouted and dropped, firing at the new threat as crimson laser-rifle beams streaked toward the human party. Sirva screamed. Something hideous and smoldering black appeared on her white tunic, and she fell from the viper wing, narrowly missing Starbuck's frantic effort to catch her.
Devara and Apollo, with renewed effort, dropped the last of the Cylons. Still watching for others, they moved hastily to Starhuck's side. He was kneeling on the ground beside his viper, with Sirva cradled in his arms.
Devara reached cautiously out for a pulse, and glancing at Apollo, slowly shook her head. ''No!"
Starbuck held the dying woman tightly, as though somehow he could miraculously stop the inevitable.
Sirva's slender, brown hand came out of her tunic pocket clutching a small rectangle. A Cylon surveillance tape. She pressed it into Starbuck's hand, her lips forming words with almost no audible sound.
"Process..." was the only thing they could hear.
A shudder ran through her then, just before her breathing ceased altogether.
Starbuck stared, not understanding, at the black plastic rectangle she had given him. In a moment, he had allowed it to fall into the dust.
"Starbuck," Apollo said quietly, "we have to go."
"You go. Both of you. Leave me behind."
"You know we can't do that."
"You can't do anything else ." Starbuck's voice was very nearly a sob. "Leave me here, or beat the Cylons to the end of their game and kill me. You don't have any other choices."
When three heartbeats had gone by in stunned silence, he said, "Go on. Get out of here."
Apollo rose, started to walk away, then turned back, the look on his face clearly stating that he'd pick Starbuck up and force him into the viper if he had to. Devara held him back.
Quietly, she removed the ever-present hypodermic from her medikit, filled it, and pressed it to Starbuck's arm. His angry protest cut short, he collapsed into the dust beside Sirva and the forgotten surveillance tape.
Devara retrieved the black rectangle and tucked it carefully into a pocket.
"If this is what I think it is, I can remove that implant. The Cylons make very accurate surveillance records."
Apollo smiled grimly. "Let's get him into the viper. I'll set the auto-pilot."
* * *
For the third time in as many days, Starbuck opened his eyes in the Galactica's medical section. He saw a ring of familiar faces: Adama, Athena, Apollo, Boomer, Cassie... and Devara.
He lifted a hand to his head and was surprised to find that it was bandaged. He realized in the same instant, that it no longer hurt. There was a faint, residual sort of ache. But the pain was gone.
"Welcome back," Boomer said cheerily. "We thought for a while you were gonna sleep through the show."
"Here." Devara swung a miniature tele-screen out of the wall into Starbuck's line of vision. "We thought you might enjoy seeing this."
There was a launch tube view on the screen. The track held a small, needle-nosed drone craft, steam escaping from its burners in preparation for launch.
"Uh... that's nice..." Starbuck said uncertainly. "What is it?"
Adama moved to an intercom near the med section door. "Flight command," he said to it, "You may launch when ready."
"Flight command. Launching probe."
The drone began to move down the launch chute, gathering speed as it went. In a micron, the screen had shifted views, and a port side camera recorded the minute streak of light that was the drone craft leaving the launch bay.
"Set drone course seven seven zero mark ten," Adama told the intercom. "Away from the Galactica all due speed."
"Aye aye, sir."
"The Implant?" Starbuck guessed.
Apollo nodded. "On its way to leading the Cylons on a merry chase."
Starbuck leaned back in the bed. "Can't say I regret that. And by the way... thanks."
"You should thank Devara, "Apollo told him. "She followed the micro-surgical procedure detailed on the tape Sirva gave you."
"And," Adama added, "it was her idea to launch the implant in the drone ship."
Starbuck smiled. "Thanks, Doc," he joked. "I owe you one. Ouch!"
Devara administered the sedative promptly, and deftly removed the hypodermic. "You rest now," she ordered. "This is one time, Lieutenant, when you are not walking out of my sickbay."
"Needle happy pill-pusher," Starbuck grumbled, and stifled a yawn as his visitors began slowly to file from the room. "One of these days..."
-- The End --