"Sir!" Gaeta's voice rang loudly in the CIC. "We have an unidentified contact on the DRADIS. Just popped up out of nowhere."
"Just the one?" asked the Admiral.
"Yes, sir. Doesn't seem to be a raider, and it's not moving. Wait... It's gone."
"What do you mean, 'gone'?" growled Colonel Tigh. "Jumped away, probably, to call all its toaster friends on our heads."
"They never send raiders alone," mused Gaeta.
"They must have done now, and they got lucky too," Adama's grim voice said. "Set alert level one throughout the ship! Launch Vipers!"
The red lights went on, the sound and fury of a full alert unleashed.
"Sir?" Lt. Gaeta had to shout through the cacophony. "We're receiving some kind of audio."
The CIC shared his surprise.
"The signal is... garbled, strange, but it's definitely some kind of audio transmission, and it's not Colonial."
"Can you make sense of it?"
Tigh pulled closer to Adama's side and muttered in a lower voice.
"What kind of bogey can disappear from the DRADIS?"
"Well, Chief's homemade bird could. I was expecting something like this any day."
"Sir," Gaeta interrupted, "I have something. Should I put it on the speaker?"
"Do so, Mr. Gaeta."
An unfamiliar male voice rang, cut off here and there by noise.
"...I repeat, this is Lt. Col. John Sheppard... Air Force... identify... please do not shoot."
Adama and Tigh exchanged equally frowning looks.
"Can we send audio back?"
"We can try," Gaeta shrugged.
"Colonel," Adama spoke somberly, "if this is what you really are, this is Admiral Adama of the Battlestar Galactica. I didn't quite get your Colonial ID."
A tensed minute passed, while they had no way of knowing if they'd been understood or if it even mattered, then:
"Admiral? Uh, I know this is going to sound strange, but - is this a human fleet?"
"Enough of this nonsense, Bill," growled Tigh, "just shoot down the damn toaster before more of his friends show up."
"I'm not sure this is a toaster, Saul. He didn't go anywhere," Adama mused.
Out loud he said: "Tell our birds to be extra-careful out there, and engage at the slightest sign of trouble, but not just yet."
"Admiral?" Sheppard's voice reminded them that he was still out there, waiting for a reply.
"We still can't see you on the DRADIS, Colonel."
"I'll decloak if you promise not to shoot me," the voice replied. He sounded like a man who tries really hard to sound cool, but can't quite hide the nervousness. "I'm a bit out of my depth here. You still haven't answered my question."
"We are very much human, Colonel. Soon enough we'll know if the same thing can be said about yourself."
"Visual confirmation from Apollo, sir," Dualla said.
"Apollo? What's the frak's out there, son?"
"Not a raider, sir, that's for sure, nothing that looks Cylon-made. Something like a bigger Raptor, but not Colonial design."
"Colonel," Adama took the microphone again, "I want you to fly that thing very carefully and follow the escort. Any wrong move and they'll blow you out of the sky."
They ran checks and scans for explosive devices or traps; Bill waited patiently for all of that, but he had a feeling deep in his gut that this was not what they had to fear from their mystery visitor, if they had anything to fear at all.
Something like a hundred armed men escorted the presumed Colonel inside, and he made quite a strange figure, dressed in something no Colonial officer would be caught dead in, lean and looking small among a huge crowd. He was gazing around with a certain amount of jadedness, like a man who's been under the threat of weapons before, but not with that infuriating carelessness that Cylons had. Maybe there was indeed no body waiting for him to resurrect, maybe he was just a man lost in the vastness of space. Bill didn't dare to speculate what that could mean.
He'd surrendered a couple of weapons, similar in shape and purpose with any of theirs, but different enough in design to set everybody on edge.
He didn't look like a threat. But neither had Sharon.
He refused to say anything more about where he came from until he thought they could be trusted, and that alone had made Tigh want to slap him, but Bill had stayed his fury. He'd have done the same.
So they delivered him to Doc Cottle, who poked and prodded at him for two whole days, mumbling and grumbling the whole time.
"Admiral?" Cottle's raspy voice called at the end of it. "You're going to want to hear this. Madame President too."
"So he's human, but not of Colonial origins? Bill," she turned to him, "do you realize what this means?"
Laura had that light he knew so well shining in her eyes.
"Oh, Bill, this could be our salvation, the very thing we set out in search of."
Bill was getting used to Sheppard's bemused and doubtful expression. He'd learned not to be offended by it. It was one of the reasons why he tended to believe the man.
Laura was considering something, then she drew a deep breath and said: "Very well, John. May I call you John? I'm going to share some history facts with you. They're not secret, so I'm doing no harm, but maybe it will convince you to answer some of our questions, because Gods, we have so many and you could be the answer to so many of our prayers."
Bill had to grin inwardly at the way she smiled, that smooth, soothing voice, good for making children at ease and yet capable of intimidating prisoners in an interrogation. John was receiving the friendly treatment, and he looked moved despite himself by the fervor in her voice.
"The Thirteenth Colony?"
John rubbed his temples against the impeding headache. He still didn't know what to make of all this, and even if he should believe any word of it.
"I have to say," he spoke slowly, "out of all the things to expect when opening a hyperspace window in the middle of an electromagnetic storm with insufficiently tested technology, ending up in the middle of a fleet of allegedly remote cousins was not high on my list of likely outcomes."
President Roslin (and wow, to be taught history lessons by the President herself, although he was still unclear what exactly was she president of) looked sad and wistful, and he was surprised to be touched by the sadness of a stranger. He hated to disappoint her, but he couldn't help quipping in his way. It was the only way to stay sane in the middle of this.
"We know how life appeared in our galaxy, and there's nothing about being part of a... mass-migration of this kind."
"Does the name Kobol mean anything to you at all?"
"Well, Cobol, with C, is a programming language, but nothing else comes to mind. I'm sorry."
"Is it possible, Bill? The wandering children wanted to erase any trace of their ancestors and siblings? Would we mean nothing to them if we appeared? Assuming we do find Earth," she added more quietly, a bitter twist at the corner of her lips.
"What about these enemies you kept mentioning when you thought I was one of them? Machines that look like humans?"
"Oh, they don't just look like us. They feel like us, they bleed like us, for all but the most sophisticated tests they're just like us," the Admiral said.
"Except that they're soulless machines intent on destroying the human race," Roslin intervened, with a small thin smile that sent chills down John's spine.
He shifted uncomfortably, and the Admiral looked like he wanted to say something, but thought better of it.
"We'll resume this conversation some other time, John. Mr. Beegan here will accompany you to the hangar bay, Chief Specialist Tyrol said he'd appreciate it if you gave him some help with your ship's technology. Perhaps it can be fixed for you."
Which John rightfully translated as "We'll have a marine with you to keep you behaving, and hopefully we can get some advantage from your ship."
"Thank you, Madam," he said out loud, keeping his face neutral.
The guy introduced himself as "Galen Tyrol, but everybody calls me Chief", and he somehow inspired John trust from the first moment. He was definitely treating the 'jumper with all due reverence, and if he wasn't drooling over it, it was because he'd already had it for a couple of days and got over most of his excitement early.
"This is your FTL drive, right? Man," he shook his head, "most of the guys here said it couldn't take you as far as the mess hall."
"Not anymore, probably." John grimaced. "I tried to jump as soon as I saw I was smack in the middle of an unknown fleet. Had too many of this kind of encounters to want to stick around for more. No offense meant."
"None taken," said Chief, "but you got stuck here anyway. Now, this is unlike anything I've ever disassembled before, but I still think I can tell a thing or two about a machine's wellbeing, and this looks fried to me."
John gulped and forced his voice not to shake.
"Pretty damn fried, I'm afraid."
"Can I...?" he felt strange for having to ask about his own ship.
Beegan the stoic marine didn't look pleased, but the Chief and his aides didn't look helpless themselves, and they convinced him they could let John get his hands dirty with them.
Two hours later, they were already bantering like they'd known each other for ages, John had acquired a few new swear words, "frak" being the most outstanding, they were dirty and scratched and John's hopes had sunk all the way to the floor. McKay might have been able to patch up something, maybe, but he bet even McKay would have given him the "are you crazy or do you still believe in MacGyver at your age?" speech. If only McKay were with him. He swallowed his anguish and hurt. On the other hand, maybe it was better McKay was not with him. At least he could still be useful back home. Home. Atlantis. The strange room filled with strange people seemed to swim around him for a moment, and he lay back and tried to steady his heart.
"You all right?"
"No," his voice sounded weak and hysteric to him. "So not all right, Chief."
"Don't know where you come from, but wherever it is, if you're so like us you gotta have something that makes it better. Something like this."
John raised his head a little, enough to see that what the Chief was proffering in a surreptitious manner was a bottle with something colorless, and probably, if their physiologies were so alike, also very alcoholic.
"Bless you, Chief, if that's what I think it is."
He'd thought hard before this, and inactivity was driving him insane. Insaner. Flying was what he was best at, and even though he didn't have 100% guarantees that these were good guys, they were humans. They were at war. And they'd lost. The thought of what would happen if Replicators won back home chilled his bones. He still wasn't clear how he felt about that Cylon among them, but if they trusted her, maybe Cylons weren't quite like Replicators. Or maybe they hadn't met their Athena, who knew.
They were always short on capable pilots, it turned out, and after endless arguing John was shoved into one of the ships they called Raptors, with Mr. Beegan a solid, gun-toting presence at his side, and two pilots to supervise him. They were the guys who had most argued in his favor, one Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace ("Hm, I've had a Sheppard under my command before. Hope you have better luck than he did," that and a strange too-wide smile and glinting eyes) and one Helo Agathon ("Sharon says you're not a Cylon, and if she doesn't know, I don't know who else would," and only now did he compile the various bits of information he'd caught and understood that she was his wife, and getting there had been no walk in the park).
He did good, better than good apparently, because Starbuck only managed to insult his intelligence twice, and she appeared to be almost as keen on doing it as McKay.
"Now I'm suspicious," she said, "you can't fly this frakking good at first touch."
"I told you," he sighed, "I've flown all kinds of birds back home," so far he'd managed to avoid explaining that Earth and home were no longer the same for him, "it's not like I'm a total rookie. I bet I'm as good as you guys are."
He knew exactly what to say to provoke people like Starbuck. He had confirmation when he saw her eyes narrow, and the challenge there.
"Well, rookie, let's see how you manage a Viper at first touch then."
"Kara..." Helo tried. He looked vaguely alarmed.
"Come on, Helo, we can always use one more pilot. Anyone can fly a frakking Raptor," she said casting a glance at him, and he scowled in reply, "Vipers are where it's really at. What separates men from boys," she added with a twist of her mouth and a playful light in her eyes.
"Helo, now my masculinity has been challenged. You have to give me a chance. I mean, there's no way I could live with myself if I haven't proved my worth to Ms. Kara here."
If there was something he was good at other than flying and math, it was giving as good as he got. He kept his tone light and unconcerned. He'd have loved to fly one of those sleek birds they called Vipers, sharp and menacing like Wraith darts but friendlier in looks, but he didn't want to appear too eager, and he certainly didn't have anything to prove to Starbuck.
Besides, Helo had that cornered look that showed he knew Starbuck would get her way, even if Sheppard himself didn't insist on it.
"No way, Starbuck. Kara, this is nuts."
She smiled so widely even John wondered if this was such a good idea after all.
Damn, those controls were fine. The Viper was nervous and responsive under his hands, and it could teach the 302s a couple of things. But first he was the one who had to learn, and he didn't even have time to reply to Starbuck's taunts from next to him. She was tailing him then, passing him now, and she was the one piercing his ears with mocking victory cries.
The Admiral's scowl was as deep as a valley, and Tigh's predictions of doom had been almost gleeful. He had the sinking feeling he was in the middle of some kind of timeless feud, and his only way out was to prove himself worthy.
Anything that can fly was a second home to him (Atlantis can fly, passed through his mind briefly), but this wasn't about that anymore. It was about proving his worth as a pilot and as an ally - or asset, more likely - anything that would give him a purpose while he was stuck with this post-apocalyptic fleet.
"Ahaaaaaaa, rookie, rookie, I like the sound of that!"
He'd left his attention drift for just one moment, and Starbuck was mocking him from above him. If she'd been an enemy he'd be well fried by now.
He wiped out all thoughts of "then" and "after", and focused on "now". Now he had a little jewel of a ship under his hands, and all the stars around him.
"Hold that thought, Starbuck, for when you'll pay my bet tonight at the bar," he said, not caring if it came across as bravado or not.
It was just the two of them at the bar now, John and Starbuck and a bottle of moonshine. He hadn't won, and gotten stuck with the callsign of Rookie, but he didn't really mind it. He could see that he'd won their respect anyway, even if a Viper was not quite like a 302 and it would take him a lot more time to master it like Starbuck did.
"So," she said after a while, "what's your callsign?"
"Rookie," he sighed. "I thought you were done gloating."
"I meant back home."
"Oh. Uh... It's not relevant. Really. You don't have the reference frame."
Kara raised an eyebrow.
John sighed. He knew her well enough by now to know she wouldn't stop nagging.
"You're right, that doesn't mean anything to me. What is it? Is it a woman's name?" she teased.
"Nah. It's a state, a part of the country I was born in. But I wasn't born there. People talk with a certain accent. They sorta drawl the vowels, like that," John said, doing his best shot at an Alabama drawl.
"And what, you don't?" Starbuck laughed.
"Not like that, I don't!"
She laughed some more and refilled their glasses. Whatever brew they had there and whatever they called it, it was surely strong, and John felt it going to his head.
"Anyway, that's not why. There's this song, Sweet Home Alabama, kinda famous; I sang it at a party."
"You can sing?"
"No. That was kind of the point."
She laughed, a little too loud, and looked into her glass.
"Funny, how we all give callsigns to pilots. Two cultures developing almost entirely separately, yet we come up with the same stuff."
She downed her glass and John sloshed the remainder of his liquor around, watching it wash the inner walls of the glass.
"Maybe it's human nature. We get other names because we're new people, when we fly. Reborn and baptized into the skies and the stars."
She grinned lopsidedly into her empty glass.
"You also a poet, Alabama?"
"Nah, just a little drunk."
"Maybe I'm drunk too, but I get what you're saying," she said, looking more serious. Something like a shadow passed over her face.
"You don't need to be drunk, you're like that all the time," a voice from behind them said, and John recognized it as Helo's.
"Sam's on his way too," Helo added, "thought you might want an advance notice," he said glancing at John, whose brain didn't quite know what to do with the intel.
"Ah, just in time to meet my husband!" Kara's eyes gleamed in that way that gave John the creeps, even as her manic grin turned him on.
Something had changed in her stance, imperceptible but there.
"Oh, didn't I mention that? I got hooked up a while ago, was on this rotten, boring planet, and he was just handy," she finished, looking at the newly arrived Anders with a provocative grin. She spoke too fast, too falsely cheery.
"That's quite enough, Kara," Anders said, quiet but not calm.
He'd met Anders a couple of times, spoke only briefly, but he remembered his tall frame and the haunted blue of those eyes. Wife? How come John never saw these things coming?
"I guess I'd better go," he mumbled and attempted for a hasty retreat.
He sensed he was, again, in the middle of a feud, and he'd rather be back between Tigh and Starbuck than in a conjugal fight, but he wasn't so lucky. Anders caught up with him in the corridor.
"So, had fun with my wife, Rookie?" He almost spat the word.
"Hey, you don't get to call me that," protested John, as if that was the topic at hand.
Anders shoved him against the cold wall of the corridor.
"I wonder what Kara sees in you. You don't fit the pattern," he gritted out.
The alcohol was doing strange things to John's self-control; at least, that's what he blamed for the way he said and did next.
"Well, why don't you find out for yourself?" he drawled, splaying himself out suggestively, tilting his head to expose his neck.
"Like, what, watch the two of you?" Anders looked close to stepping up the violence, and John didn't want that. He liked the way Sam was holding him now, pressing him against the wall without even realizing the effects it had on Sheppard.
"No," he said, grabbing at Sam's clothes to pull him closer and whisper in his face, "like this."
Their alcohol breaths mingled and there couldn't possibly be another meaning to his offer. He could see the play of emotions across Anders' face, the sudden understanding, the anger mixed with something not entirely unlike lust.
Anders grabbed him and pulled him onward, wordlessly, but the way he'd looked at him led John to expect the best.
The storage room was uncomfortable as heck, but Anders managed to find a blanket of sorts, and then he pulled John close and he didn't even care about the sharp edges of boxes and the stale smell. Sam pushed him, pressed him down into the floor and rubbed into him, and they licked and bit at each other and John was dimly aware of the little moans he was making, and Sam's broken, heavy breath. Sam had big hands and was so hot to the touch, like his spine was on fire, and his weight on John was reassuring, anchoring, even as his head felt like he was flying. Sam's skin tasted salty and somewhat familiar, somewhat alien, and after the first ten minutes his movements forgot to be punishing and they were just strong, and John could drown himself in the sensations and come with the image of stars going nova behind his eyelids.
Afterwards, Sam had that guilty look John had once seen in the mirror, sometime before his divorce. Except John knew, somehow, that Anders would never let Kara go.
He cleared his throat, and even that sounded awkward and thundering in his ears.
"I, um," he began, "we didn't."
"Your wife and I. We didn't have any fun, I mean, not in the way you meant it."
"She's great, a great pilot, a hell of a woman, but we just - she's not my type, and I don't think I'm hers either. If she asks, you can always blame me," John went on, because he couldn't stand the way Sam was looking at him. "I'm used to it," he added in a low voice, mostly to himself.
Sam took a moment to process this, but seemed to accept it for the truth it was.
"Then why did you...?"
"I wanted you." John had to hide his face and look down. He was a little bit ashamed of not being ashamed at all. "I'm a bit fucked up in the head, I think. I mean frakked."
Sam's face had the humorless smile of resignation.
"Fucked, I like the word. I think we're all a little fucked up in the heads. We could use it instead of frak."
"Not if you ever find Earth, I wouldn't advise it," John quipped, and then his laughter stopped in his throat and the room did a funny spinning thing.
Sam looked at him with more sympathy than John thought he deserved, all things considered.
"I hope you can return home one day, John."
John licked his lips and swallowed hard. Home. And Earth and the fleet and the Cylons after them.
"I hope you... I don't know what I hope. I just hope."
"That's more than some of us do."
John didn't like it when rooms got blurry, so he gathered the blanket around himself and tried to be practical.
"Go on," he told Sam, "you get out first, hit the shower."
"Yeah, I'm gonna lie down here some more, make sure enough time passes before I go too."
"See you around, Rookie."
John waited a long time before he got out of there himself, counting boxes and sheep and trying hard not to count ways in which he wanted and never wanted to get home ever again.