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A trio of Cylon raiders dipped and swooped through space like silent bats on razor wings. Kara Thrace clenched her toes—the only part of her that wasn't occupied with flying her Viper—and tried to keep her eye on all three at once. Two of them split off and swooped around to her left and her right in a pincer move while the third one came straight at her. Kara's eyes darted back and forth and her heart pounded hard.
Come on, she thought, and goosed her thrusters so the Viper jolted upward. You on the left—a little higher.
"Watch yourself, Starbuck," Lee Adama said in her earpiece. His voice was heavily distorted by the radio, but Kara understood him perfectly well. You learned to sort out the words through the distortion, almost like learning a foreign language.
"I know what I'm doing, Apollo," she snapped. "Watch your own ass, not mine."
"Apollo's watching Starbuck's ass?" Brandon "Hot Dog" Constanza said over his own radio. "Can I make a comment about that? Please?"
"Just do your frakking job, Lieutenant," Lee warned.
All around them, other Vipers rushed at the flock of raiders. The deadly little Cylon ships were sleek, flat, and black, with a protrusion in the front that resembled a head. A single red "eye" cruised restlessly back and forth, hunting, scanning. Aiming. In stark contrast, the Vipers were battered and battle-worn. Kara's had once been white, but scorch marks, scrapes, and other damage had weathered it to an uneven gray. It looked like a miniature fighter jet that had crashed once or twice and been knocked back together in a mechanic's back yard. Behind Kara and the other Vipers cruised the immense bulk of the Battlestar Galactica. Surrounding it like chicks near a mother hen were the disparate shapes of some seventy-odd ships—passenger ships, cruise ships, work ships. They were all that remained of human civilization. Behind the fleet spun an honest-to-gods blue planet. It had water, it had plant life, and it was the reason why the fleet hadn't simply hit their faster-than-light drives and Jumped out the moment the Cylons Jumped in.
The two Cylon raiders rushed inward for their pincer move, one to port, one to starboard. Kara caught a gleam of starlight off their forward guns. They fired. With a whoop, Kara yanked the control lever at the side of her seat. Auxiliary jets flashed, and the little fighter blasted straight upward. Bullets crossed the intervening space and both Cylon raiders exploded, torn to pieces by friendly fire. Kara wondered if they felt any pain. The Cylon ships were actually living beings, or as alive as Cylons got, anyway. Not that this fact kept Kara from pressing the trigger. She flicked another lever and her maneuverable little Viper whipped around in time to fire on the third Cylon. It exploded as well, close enough that the blast knocked her sideways a little bit, wrenching her around in her seat.
"I can't believe you frakkin' did that!" Kat shouted as her own guns raked the raider in front of her.
Kara grinned without answering. Ahead of her, two more Cylons exploded in bright fireballs beneath her guns. A piece of debris rushed straight at her, and she dived beneath it as if the Viper were an extension of her body. Two raiders skimmed into view ahead of her, straight into her cross-hairs, and she wiped both of them out before they even noticed she was there. Beyond the flock of raiders hovered the malignant, spiky form of a Cylon basestar. The frakking thing had popped into existence a few minutes ago and spat out a swarm of raiders, forcing Kara Thrace, Lee Adama, and the other Viper pilots to scramble into their ships to defend the fleet.
Kara brought her Viper up and around again. In the distance, the brilliant yellow star showered golden light in all directions and Kara made an automatic mental note—keep her tail to the sun and force the raiders to look into it whenever possible. She had no idea if the Cylons would be blinded by the solar radiation, or even affected by it at all. For all she knew, they had Cylon sunglasses, but it didn't hurt to try. An image of a raider donning a set of goggles with a single giant lens in the middle popped into her head and a giggle bubbled at the back of her throat. At that moment, yet another raider bore down on her, guns blazing. Kara yelped and whipped her Viper hard to port. She heard pops and pings as the raider's ammo ricocheted off her wings and tail, though her instruments stayed in the green. No real damage. Chief Tyrol would probably chew her out anyway.
Concentrate, she snarled to herself. She spun the Viper around, ignoring the stomach-wrenching vertigo, and fired on the raider with both guns. The barrels mounted on either side of the tiny flight cabin flashed, and Kara felt the familiar breathy thump of her own gunfire. The raider shredded, and Kara moved on to new targets before the debris had a chance to scatter.
"Starbuck," Lee said. "Check your ten o'clock. A pack of raiders heading for Planet Goop."
Kara glanced to port and saw them. Nine raiders had broken away from the rest of the flock, clearly intent on skirting the Galactica so they could dive-bomb the little blue planet—and the Monarch on its surface.
"Moving to intercept, Apollo," she shot back. "You with me?"
"All the way. And can the response, Hot Dog."
"Did I say anything?" Hot Dog protested. "One word?"
The raiders swooped and dove in perfect unison. Kara, glad the sun was behind her, hit her thrusters hard. The extra g-force pressed her back into her seat and gave her the unnerving feeling that she was flying straight up instead of forward. Space gave few visual cues, and her inner ear was shouting that gravity—down—was directly behind her. She ignored her inner ear and focused on the fleeing Cylons instead. Hatred flared hot inside her head. These were the frakking bastards who had destroyed her entire world and chased her across countless star systems. How many months had it been since she'd felt safe? How many months had it been since she'd had a night's uninterrupted sleep? How many months since the Cylon attack? She had lost count.
The stupid part was that humans had created the Cylons, robots designed for labor too difficult or dangerous for people. And then somewhere along the line the robots had become so sophisticated that they thought they were people too, and they started a rebellion. The resulting war had nearly destroyed the Twelve Colonies and all but wiped out both humans and Cylons. In the end, the Cylons had agreed to take themselves off to another part of space. Peace reigned, and humanity let itself breathe again. Forty-odd years later, the Cylons had reappeared, smarter, angrier, and deadlier than before. They fell on the startled Twelve Colonies and killed billions of humans. Fewer than fifty thousand had survived on various ships that had somehow escaped the carnage. Those ships were now informally known as the Fleet, under the command of Commander William Adama and the governorship of President Laura Roslin. The Fleet was looking for Earth, the fabled thirteenth colony, and Kara was sure they'd find it. Eventually. That hope kept her going. Meanwhile, they had to deal with the Cylons and their living battleships.
The nine raiders swooped downward, remaining carefully out of range of Galactica's weapons. For all that the Galactica was an aging Battlestar that was falling apart at the seams, it had more than enough power to wipe out nine measly Cylon raiders. Unfortunately, the Galactica was about as maneuverable as a whale caught in low tide, so she depended on the Vipers to sweat the small stuff.
Kara and Apollo accelerated, gaining on the raiders. Ahead of them, Planet Goop spun slowly in its orbit like a perfect blue gem rolling across black velvet. Kara squinted, searching, even though she knew it was impossible to see the Monarch from up here. The Monarch was a mining ship, but it wasn't down on the surface digging up metal or rocks—it was scooping up goop. Planet Goop had an official name somewhere, but no one used it. It had water, an atmosphere composed of lots of nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and an oceanful of primitive algae. In a few million years, once the plant life had exhaled enough oxygen, Planet Goop might even be habitable by humans. In the meantime, however, the algae had turned out to be quite valuable. It was resistant to radiation—Planet Goop had no real ozone layer—and it could be refined into anti-radiation meds. More importantly, it could also be processed into edible food. Steak composed of smooshed-up algae, colored brown and grilled, didn't taste quite the same as its natural counterpart, but it sure beat starving, and the Monarch was harvesting the stuff by the truckload.
Then the Cylon basestar ship had popped up and spewed Cylon raiders. Every ship in the Fleet possessed a faster-than-light drive and could Jump to a safe location, but that would leave the Monarch and her crew defenseless. It was also frakking hard to track down ships that didn't all Jump at the same time, and there was considerable risk that one or more would be lost. So they all stayed.
Kara checked her scanner. Tiny Cylon symbols skittered around the screen. In two more seconds she'd be within firing—
An alarm light flashed. Kara gasped and her heart lurched.
"Frak!" she shouted. "One of those raiders has a nuke on board!"
"Uh oh," Lee said. "Which one?"
"How the hell should I know?" she shot back. "Stupid frakking Cylons all look alike."
"Hold your fire, Starbuck," came Commander Adama's voice in her headset. "Repeat: Hold your fire."
"No shit," she muttered, too quietly for the Old Man to hear. If she fired on a raider that was carrying a nuclear missile, the explosion would wipe out not only her, but Lee, a bunch of the Vipers, and probably a piece of the Galactica. It would also wipe out a frakload of Cylons, but that wouldn't be much comfort to the people-sucking vacuum.
The nine raiders sped onward. Kara continued to follow, wondering if Cylons could feel smug.
"These raiders aren't usually equipped to fire missiles," Lee said. "How is it planning to use a nuke?"
"Suicide run, Apollo," Kara said. "It's hoping to crash into the Monarch and explode or get strafed by one of us and explode."
"Starbuck, I have the nuke on scanner," said Felix Gaeta. Kara could imagine him, dark-haired and ramrod straight, standing with Adama in Galactica's Combat Information Center, outwardly cool as an arctic rock but working like hell on his systems. "Sending you and Apollo the info now."
One of the raiders on Kara's own screen blinked from red to yellow.
"Got it," Lee said. "Let's go!"
"Don't eat the yellow snow," Kara agreed, "and don't bite the yellow Cylon."
She closed in and hit the trigger. Three of the non-nuke raiders tore themselves to pieces. Kara dodged the debris cloud as the remaining seven came about. One of them—the yellow one—hung back. The forward six returned fire, and Kara was suddenly very busy. Her Viper dipped and swooped, constantly changing vector and heading. Two bullets smacked off her flight canopy like rocks off a windshield. A little more to port, and she would have been dead. The yellow Cylon continued to blink mockingly on her scanner screen.
"Come on, Apollo," she muttered through clenched teeth. Planet Goop reeled in and out of view as she dodged deadly bullets. "Get the mother—"
Friendly fire lashed down. Three more raiders vanished in exploding clouds. They'd been concentrating on Kara and forgotten about Lee. With a whoop, she reoriented and fired on the remaining trio. One more raider blew up. Kara was half sure its single red eye had widened in surprise. Another raider exploded under Lee's expert fire, leaving only the nuke raider. Kara eyed it uncertainly. It hovered in front of her and stared back, its single eye tracking back and forth. Kara wondered if it was scanning her somehow and the thought made cold worms crawl over her skin. She didn't dare fire, and the frakking thing knew it.
"Shit!" Hot Dog shouted over the com. "Another contingent of raiders coming out of the basestar's ass. Move move move!"
"How many of those things does it have?" replied another pilot. It sounded like Jen Curtis, callsign Shadow. Kara flashed on a brief mental image of her tall, lithe figure in the Viper, her long brown hair tied back so it wouldn't float around her face in zero gravity. "We're gonna get chewed into dog food."
"The raider's guns have been removed," Lee said quietly. His Viper moved in beside hers and she could see Lee's handsome, boyish face in his own Plexiglas cabin. "To make room for the nuke. It's only got one shot, and it has to make it count."
"Kat!" Shadow shouted. "Watch it!"
"Too many. Pull back! Pull back!"
Kara felt a sudden urge to whip around and fly back to help her fellow Vipers. She shoved the feeling aside. This raider had the power to take out the Monarch or a major chunk of the Fleet, and she had to deal with it.
"Starbuck, report," Commander Adama ordered.
"The nuke raider can't decide what to do," Kara said. "Take out us or the Monarch."
"I'm hit! Gods, I'm hit!"
"I've got you covered, Hot Dog. Get yourself—" An explosion came over the comm.
"Shadow! Shadow! Aw, no. Jen!"
"More raiders coming from the basestar."
"Fall back to the Galactica. Let her cover us."
Kara glared at the nuke Cylon. It glared back. "Frak! We have to wipe out this thing and get rid of the basestar."
"How?" Lee snapped. "The basestar isn't stupid enough to come close enough to engage the Galactica. And we don't have the firepower to—"
The nuke raider abruptly spun and dove toward Planet Goop. Kara blinked, then dove after it. Even as she moved, an idea popped into her head, and she moved instinctively to implement it.
"Starbuck!" Lee shouted. "Don't!"
But Kara ignored him. Grimly she accelerated, gaining on the Cylon until the blue flames of its rear thrusters were warming her Viper's nose. Her hands sweated and her heart raced like a greyhound. Her life was in imminent danger. One mistake, and she would be a cloud of debris like the raiders she had killed. A grin slid across her face. She loved every minute. With steady fingers, she lined up the shot. One chance, and one chance only.
"Starbuck!" Lee said. "What the frak are you doing?"
"Up yours, toaster." Kara twitched a finger and fired a single round. It went straight into the raider's thrusters. Nothing happened. Kara held her breath. Then the blue flames flickered, sputtered, and died. The Cylon coasted ahead, somehow managing to look startled. Its acceleration immediately stopped and it sped ahead on momentum alone. Kara overshot it, spun her Viper around, and extended her landing gear. Now both Viper and raider were coasting toward the blue planet, though Kara was facing backward. More sounds of combat came over the comm, but she steadfastly ignored them. This was going to be tricky enough. Carefully, using every bit of instinct and skill she possessed, she tapped her own thrusters and slowed herself enough to allow the raider to catch up with her. She edged the Viper upward just a little, then slowed herself again. The helpless raider slid beneath her. There was a thunk and a slight screech of tortured metal. Kara goosed her thrusters again. The Cylon slowed with her—it was stuck on her landing gear. Without working engines, it couldn't break free. She wondered what it was thinking.
"Starbuck, what the hell are you doing?" Commander Adama demanded.
"I'm returning some merchandise to the store, sir," she said. "Apollo, cover me!" And she accelerated toward the basestar.
"Hey—what?" Lee, caught off guard, hurried to catch up and pass her. "You're frakking insane!"
"That's why you all love me," she shouted. "Just open up a hole in that squadron at your three o'clock. We'll send this nuke back where it came from and get rid of the basestar all at once."
"You sure you can do this, Starbuck?" Lee asked.
"Frak, no. You with me or not?"
Lee hesitated for only a moment. "Kat, Hot Dog—lay down suppressive fire," he ordered. "Creeper, Fireboy, and Zelda—keep at the others. Fall back if you have to."
Ahead of Kara, a veritable cloud of Cylon raiders rushed in a hundred dizzying directions like a horde of vampire bats looking for prey. The Viper squadron was outnumbered at least ten to one, but they had nonetheless carved several chunks from the enemy cloud. Cylons seemed to put quantity over quality when it came to dogfighting in space. It was a wasteful tactic. On the other hand, it had won them victory over the Twelve Colonies.
Kara aimed for the basestar and flew, a grim smile on her face. Burdened with the raider, her Viper was hard to handle, sluggish and unresponsive. She couldn't maneuver much, either—a too-sudden turn might dislodge the raider caught on her landing gear. A clump of raiders swirled just ahead, between her and the basestar, and she held her breath. At exactly the right moment, Lee opened fire. Several of the raiders went up. The others regrouped, ready to fight back, but Kat and Hot Dog rushed in to finish the job. Their guns blazed, creating a dozen more silent fireballs. Kara punched up her speed and headed straight into the hole that had opened up. For a moment she was blinded by fire, smoke, and debris. Something pinged off her starboard wing, jolting her around. But the raider remained firmly in place. Then the debris cleared. Ahead of her she could see the ugly Cylon basestar. It looked a little like a child's jack, the kind kids snatched from the ground before the ball could bounce again. But this jack had been squashed down and then blown up to half the size of the Galactica. Kara wondered how many Cylons were inside. Was one of them keeping track of the battle and issuing orders like Commander Adama? Had he given the nuke raider its orders? Maybe the nuke raider was the basestar's version of her, a Cylon Starbuck, given a mission that would take some difficult or impossible flying.
Kara shook off these thoughts and concentrated on the basestar. A glance up and port told her that Lee had brought his own Viper close to hers. Behind, she assumed, Kat and Hot Dog were keeping other raiders too busy to pursue her. She released a tense breath.
Okay, all you Lords of Kobol, she thought. This is where you can prove that I'm one of your favorites.
Tentacles of smoke wound out of the basestar. Missiles. Fear dried up Kara's mouth. Even with Lee intercepting, she doubted she could dodge all of them, and it would only take one to wipe her out. They threaded toward her and Lee.
"I'm reading a signal from the nuke raider," Gaeta said. "It's similar to a distress call."
"Starbuck," Lee said, "we need to turn back."
Anger boiled in Kara's stomach. The missiles were now eight or ten kilometers away. The basestar loomed, taking up Kara's entire field of vision.
"Are you frakking crazy?" she snapped. "Back through all those raiders?"
"We can't deal with those missiles on our own," Lee retorted. "That's an order, Lieu—"
The missiles detonated. Every one of them. Flares of light flashed against Kara's retinas, leaving red dots. The shockwave came a moment later, but the missiles had exploded far too soon to do any damage and she rode it out with scarcely a bump.
"They know!" Kara whooped. "The toasters know I have their nuke. They didn't want one of their missiles to set it off this close."
"A bunch of raiders got past us," Kat said. "Company's coming, Apollo."
"I'll take care of it," Lee said. "Starbuck, go! Make it fast!"
She went. Her sluggish Viper flung itself forward. This was the closest she had ever come to a basestar, and it filled her world with gray menace. The disgusting thing had actual frakking portholes in it, and she could see figures moving around inside. Did they know what she was doing, or that she was even here? She gnawed her lower lip in concentration. Flashes of light came over her shoulder, telling her that Lee had engaged the flock of raiders that had gotten past Hot Dog and Kat. Kara eyed the basestar, her eyes tracking rapidly back and forth almost like the single eye of a Cylon. And then she saw it—an open port. It might have been for launching raiders, it might have been for launching missiles. Hell, it might have been for launching Cylon sewage. Kara didn't much care. She aimed for it and accelerated again.
Lords of Kobol, she thought, keeping her hands steady by strength of will. Fear mixed with exhilaration, making both all the sweeter. The port loomed closer. At the last minute, Kara reversed all her thrusters. She slammed against her flight harness, and pain made an H across her chest. With a metallic screech, the nuke raider wrenched away from her landing gear. It spun like a discus, the single eye tracking frantically back and forth as it headed for the port. At the last moment, Kara fired her weapons. A tongue of flame touched the little raider just as it flew into the port.
"Run!" Kara shouted into the comm. She flipped her Viper over and punched the thrusters hard. Acceleration shoved her backward, crushing her, and her vision flickered for a moment before she could recover. She rushed past the Cylons Lee was fighting. Lee flipped his own Viper and fled along with her. The raiders paused for a moment, then flew after them. Kara threw a glance over her shoulder at the basestar, waiting for the big kaboom.
Uh oh, she thought, then looked at the flock of raiders on her screen. Over a hundred behind her, and all would hit firing range in a few seconds.
"If we live through this," Lee growled, bringing his Viper in beside hers, "I'm going to kill you."
Starbuck flashed him a sickly grin and flipped her Viper one more time, guns ready. Lee followed suit. If she was going to go down, she would go down with her weapons blazing and the wounds on her front, not her back. The raiders rushed forward, their sleek, deadly forms almost invisible against the blackness.
And then a horrendous light filled the universe.
Copyright © 2007 by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. Battlestar Galactica © USA Cable Entertainment LLC. Licensed by Universal Studios Licensing LLLP. All rights reserved. All rights reserved.