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Two Below Zero

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BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
FRM: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA

---L,
GETTIN’ MARRIED BITCH —STOP— YOU’RE MY BRIDESMAN WON’T ACCEPT NO —STOP— YOUR CMDR IS ZAK’S DAD DON’T TELL YET —STOP— MISS YOU ALL MY LOVE —STOP—
---A
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA
FRM: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

---A,
CONGRATULATIONS —STOP— TELL ME WHEN AND I’M THERE —STOP— GET READY FOR BEST TOAST EVER WILL EMBARRASS YOU SO MUCH —STOP— CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU —STOP—
---L
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
FRM: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA

---L,
TOO LATE TO CHANGE MY MIND? —STOP—
---A
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA
FRM: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

---A,
ABOUT ME OR ZAK? —STOP—
---L
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
FRM: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA

ABOUT YOU —STOP— FRAKKER —STOP—
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA
FRM: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

DEFINITELY TOO LATE —STOP— ALREADY PLANNING VERY SLOPPY HEN PARTY —STOP—
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
FRM: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA

STRIPPERS? —STOP—
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA
FRM: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

OBVIOUSLY —STOP—
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
FRM: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA

BEST FRIEND EVER —STOP—
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

BEGIN PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE:
TO: LT. KARA THRACE, FLIGHT INSTRUCTOR, FLEET ACADEMY—CAPRICA
FRM: LT. KARL AGATHON, ELECTRONIC COUNTERMEASURES OFFICER, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

LOVE YOU TOO —STOP—
END PRIVATE CORRESPONDENCE

***

This wasn’t how Helo had imagined his Raptor ride to Caprica with Commander Adama would be. They should have been sharing stories about the happy couple, the Commander prying for whatever good dirt Helo had on the bride (and he had a lot of it). He’d been expecting laughter, and holding out hope for some high-priced liquor.

But this ride was quiet and somber. The Old Man ashen. Children buried their parents, that was a natural order to the world that Karl had learned when his mother died a few years back, but parents did not bury their children. Shouldn’t have to, in a world of mercy.

Yet, here they were.

“Did you ever meet Zak, Lieutenant?” Adama asked, breaking the silence.

“I did, Sir,” Helo replied. He’d taken a week’s leave in Delphi last year, and found Zak Adama easy to like, and not just for his calming influence on Starbuck. “He was a good man.”

“He was practically still a boy,” the Old Man said.

They were silent the rest of the ride.

***

Helo didn’t go to the funeral itself. Starbuck needed someone to stay at her apartment, to open the door for any early arrivals for the reception.

He’d been looking forward to polishing the brass buttons on her finest dress uniform, sneaking her a shot of top-shelf Picon Rum as the first notes of the wedding march began to play, stringing cans to the bumper of her truck with Zak’s brother, and giving the dirty, dirty toast he’d had just a few jokes left to polish.

But instead, he opened the door.

***

After the final guest left, Kara sat down on her bed, her gaze distant, unfocused. He put his arms around her, and she cried against his chest. Anyone who called Starbuck emotionless was wrong—she was, in fact, the most passionate person he’d ever met, a soul burning beneath the surface, but he’d never seen her like this, so lost.

She cried herself to sleep in his arms, uniform and all, brass buttons dull. He drifted in and out, and her sleep was restless, too. In the grey hours of dawn, she whispered It was my fault, but he didn’t question or judge, just let her know he was there by drawing her closer, and she didn’t supply any more.

In the morning, he made breakfast. Threw away the trash from the day before, sorted the leftover casseroles (really? They were old enough to have friends who made casseroles?) into “keep” and “oops, should have refrigerated,” and made a list of who had sent flowers.

“What do I do now?” she asked, wandering into the kitchen. The uniform was gone, in its place panties and a man’s shirt. He was well-acquainted with this look—but even though Zak’s shirt was much tighter on her than any of Helo’s had ever been, she looked somehow smaller.

“I don’t know,” he replied, honestly. Wasn’t his father still not completely all right? Still a topic of concerned conversation when he called his older sisters back on Aquaria?

“I’m turning in my resignation to the Academy,” she said. “I can’t…I can’t teach anymore.”

“Will you still fly?” he asked.

She sat down at the counter and put her head in her hands.

***

Helo was deep in thought, his eyes on his cards. He had the table right where he wanted them.

“Check his eyebrows. He’s bluffing.”

Helo looked up to see her standing in the doorway of the pilots’ rec room. Leaning casually against the frame, arms crossed like she owned the whole godsdamn ship. His mouth dropped open, lollipop falling out of it.

“Starbuck?”

Game forgotten, he threw his cards down on the table and ran to her. He scooped her into a hug so enthusiastic her feet came off the ground.

“Good to see you, too, Helo.”

“What are you doing on Galactica?” he asked as he set her back to the ground.

“Commander offered me spot in the wing.”

“How are—”

“I’m fine,” she said, cutting him off.

“Kara—” he started.

Karl.” She shot him a look and pulled away. “Introduce me to your friends!”

“Right,” he said, leading her over to the table. “Everyone, this is Lieutenant Thrace. Kara. She and I have been friends since the Academy. Kara, this is Dwight, Tucker, and Sharon, my raptor jock.”

Boomer stood, offering an eager hand. “Starbuck, right? I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I’ve heard a lot about you, too,” Starbuck replied.

Boomer glanced at Helo with a smile, then back to Starbuck. “Oh, I’m sure—”

“Callsign Boomer? Bane of landing decks everywhere, right?” Boomer scowled at Helo, and, frak, he was going to pay for that. But Starbuck didn’t notice, cocking her head at Boomer. “Where have we met?”

“You taught at the Academy while I was there,” Boomer offered.

Starbuck sat down in one of the chairs and rocked back in it, pondering this. She snapped her fingers. “Yes! You found me that night in the nuggets’ head praying to the porcelain gods.” Boomer shrugged in modest acknowledgement.

“Enough alcohol to make you throw up?” Karl asked. “Must have been a good night.”

“Gods, I wish. Frakkin’ Academy oysters. Anyway, Karl, you got yourself a sweetheart. Held my hair back and everything!” She grinned. “So, you frakked him yet, Boomer?”

Helo’s head snapped up, but Boomer was cool, taking a sip of her drink. “Have you?”

“Oh, don’t try to out-embarrass Starbuck. You’ll lose every time,” Helo warned.

“You’ve got spark,” Starbuck said to Boomer, and maybe they were going to get along after all. She then turned to Helo. “And of course I have. But I wasn’t enough woman.” Her finger, running lightly down his jaw. Her voice, breathy: “He has such a big, massive—”

“Starbuck!” Helo chided, pushing at her hand.

“Karl Cyrus Agathon!” she said, eyes wide, clutching at imaginary pearls. “I was going to say heart, you dirty boy.”

“Oh, she is going to be fun to have around,” Duck said.

“You don’t know the half of it,” Helo replied.

Starbuck pounded her hands on the table. “Okay, boys and girl. I’m going to go get something to drink and then deal me in.”

***

Three weeks into Starbuck’s posting, and everything about the well-ordered, regimented, clean life Helo had established for himself on Galactica was in a bit of an upheaval. He loved Starbuck with all her manic tendencies, but, truth be told, she’d been going pretty hard, even for her.

It was only by the grace of the gods—sometimes Helo wondered if she was favored by Dionysus—that Starbuck wasn’t in the brig tonight, so they were celebrating. The ambrosia maybe wasn’t the best idea.

He was hoping, though, to keep her quiet, isolated, away. Triton was always safe topic. Even if the Commander’d hated her, they’d had friends at all levels and a lot of good times. Galactica could be like that for her if she wanted it, Helo knew, and it seemed like she was starting to get that, waving her hands and even smiling as she recounted the time they had refilled the CAG’s shampoo allotment with lubricant. She was smiling. Drunk, but smiling, which he considered a job well done.

“Can’t believe that was three years ago,” he said, laughing.

She set down her glass, suddenly thoughtful. “No, it seems like a long time. I was on land for a long time. A long time.” She ran her hands through her hair, blinked for a moment to regain her train of thought. “It’s amazing how fast the space bleeds right out of you! It’s different sharing quarters again. Not bad, though.”

“It’s weirdly comforting,” he said. “At this point, I think I’d go crazy in a single.”

“Don’t our XO prove that’s the truth,” Starbuck said.

“Starbuck—” he warned.

“What?” she asked. “Say it.”

“You know what, let’s not worry about that tonight. How about that dog. Remember the Commander’s wife’s dog?”

“That’s not what you want to say.” A wide, taunting grin, tongue between her teeth. “Come on, Helo. I dare you.”

He sighed. He hadn’t planned on going there, not tonight, but she did need to hear it. “You gotta stop picking fights with Colonel Tigh,” he said.

“Maybe when that frakker stops pissing me off,” she replied. “Maybe I will think about it!”

“Kara, this isn’t like Triton, where we didn’t give a frak what the Commander thought. And you’re not a hotshot instructor at the Academy anymore, either.”

“No,” she said, standing up, waving her glass for emphasis. “I’m not teaching at the Academy anymore. Do you know why, Helo?! Do you remember?”

He was going to have to backpedal hard. “I know it’s been—”

“But you know what? Right. Fine. I’m not a teacher anymore. That means I don’t have lesson plans or department meetings or appointments! My off-time is mine!” She cocked her head across the rec room, and Helo followed her gaze to a table of pilots playing strip triad. Which one, only the gods knew. Maybe all of them. “And no frakking strict rules about who I can’t fraternize with!”

Dragon turned around, and she winked. He started to stand up, to join their table, but Helo guided her down, waving Dragon off. “Some people forget, but we got frat regs here, too,” he said.

“It’s not like I cared about them, anyway,” she said, shrugging it off. “Zak can attest to that!”

“Maybe you’ve had enough for tonight,” he said, trying to guide the glass from her hand. “But you know if you ever just need to talk about him…”

But she snatched the glass from him, ambrosia spilling everywhere in the process. She looked down at it, then back up at him, her eyes blazing. “You used to be my wingman, you know!” she shouted. She drank the last of what remained in the glass defiantly.

“Starbuck—” he started, but she ignored him, stomping over to Dragon’s table. She bent to his ear, her mouth so close Karl was pretty sure she was just tonguing it. Dragon stood up, his hand on her waist.

“Kara!” he tried again, and this time she did look back. “This isn’t how you’re supposed to grieve.”

“Frak you,” she said, and then she and Dragon were gone.

Helo leaned back, head in his hands. Just another night in the bar with Starbuck.

***

Helo and Boomer reached the Commander’s door just as Starbuck approached from the other direction. She was clearly still hungover, a slight wobble to her step, hair mussed, eyes trying desperately not to be bleary.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” he replied.

She pressed her hand to her temple. “I think I owe you…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Helo replied. Wasn’t the first time she’d told him to frak off. Wouldn’t be the last. She lightly, affectionately punched his shoulder. She looked down at the summons in his hand.

“You, too?” she asked.

“Us, too,” Boomer replied.

“That’s a surprise,” Starbuck said. “Thought I was getting in trouble.”

The Marine opened the door. They saluted Commander Adama, and he saluted back. “Come in,” he said. He had land surveys spread out across his desk. The navigator in Helo took interest in them immediately, and he leaned over Kara’s shoulder for a closer look. “Do you recognize it?” the Commander asked.

He could tell neither of the women knew what they were looking at. Hells, most ECOs in the Fleet wouldn’t know what they were looking at, the land survey largely featureless, almost entirely blanketed with white.

But Karl knew it. Not because of any inherent skill, but because of the sinking feeling in his stomach. “It’s Aquaria,” he said, his voice sounding flat in his ears. “The Sadalmelik Glacier.” Kara’s head snapped up, and she met his eyes in recognition, soft.

His mother had died on the Sadalmelik.

“What do you see here?” the Commander asked, indicating to a dark spot on the map.

Helo picked up a magnifying glass and bent over to examine it. For a terrible moment, he thought that Adama was asking him to identify the wreckage of the Earnest. But as he peered at the map, he relaxed. He stood. “It appears to be a building, Sir. Some sort of outpost.”

“That’s what the Aquarian Geological Institute thinks, as well,” the Commander replied. “Only they’ve authorized no such building. They don’t have the vehicle capability to investigate it themselves, so they’ve requested that the Fleet send a Raptor team to gather intelligence on who built the building and what their purpose is.”

“Just a flyover?” Boomer asked. “Or will we be expected to land?”

“You’ll land and investigate, with Lieutenant Thrace for tactical support,” Adama said. He put the file down, glanced up at Helo. “The need for investigation is why I picked your Raptor in particular. I wanted someone who’s used to the local climate, and you’re the only Aquarian currently serving under my command.” That wasn’t surprising—not that his people were pacifists or anti-Fleet to any degree, but with literally fewer than one Aquarian per every million Colonials, it was rare to find them in large numbers anywhere outside of the Helios Delta system. “But I’ve read your file, Lieutenant Agathon, and if you’d rather not—”

“It won’t be a problem, Sir,” Karl replied.

“Very good,” Commander Adama said. “You’ll leave tomorrow at oh-five-forty. Junior Lieutenant Valerii, please report to Chief Tyrol with orders to outfit your Raptor for extreme cold conditions. You two are dismissed. Lieutenant Thrace, a word.”

Guess she was getting in trouble after all.

“Pre-mission logistical meeting at nineteen hundred hours, Lieutenant Agathon?” she asked.

Bullshit. She just wanted a drink.

“Affirmative, Lieutenant Thrace,” Helo responded. “We’ll meet you.” He’d keep her on something softer than ambrosia tonight.

He and Boomer saluted the Commander, and they left.

“I could speak to the Chief for you,” Karl offered after the hatch closed.

“I’ve got it,” Boomer replied. “See you in the rec room at nineteen.”

***

“He calls me Starbuck when it’s just us,” she said absently as she played with the label on her bottle, and Helo wasn’t sure if it was a thought he was meant to hear.

“But you’re not in trouble, then?” he asked, and she looked up.

“Nah,” she replied. “Just a few other details about the mission, wanted to make sure I knew what he meant by tactical support.”

Helo didn’t have any doubts. Starbuck was a damn good shot. “He thinks it’s gonna come to that?”

“Never know what we might find out there,” she said, a non-committal reply if he’d ever heard one. “How about you? You sure you want to go, Helo?”

“It’s my homeworld,” he replied, downing a gulp of his own beer. “It makes sense that I go show you girls how to stay warm.” And gods knew Starbuck needed to go on this mission, needed to get off the ship. Maybe when they were done with the mission they could swing over to Heim, distract Dad from the lab work he’d buried himself in. He’d always liked Kara: “that firecracker of yours.” It might do them both good.

“Karl—”

“I’m fine, Kara,” he said—and she’d said the exact same thing to him, in the exact same tone, enough times that she should respect his request to back off. But he wasn’t sure she actually would until Boomer joined them, easy smile on her face, all but bouncing on the balls of her feet.

Starbuck smiled, took a sip. “Someone just got laid,” she quipped.

Helo knew for a fact who it’d be, and for a dark moment he almost wished they could go back to talking about his comfort level with the Sadalmelik. He took a deep drink, but over the glass he could see that Boomer’s expression had changed from easy to nervous.

“Just excited for the mission,” Boomer said quickly, eyes surveying the room as if to see if anyone had heard. “This is the first time I’ve ever done something like this. Special orders and all.”

“Frak,” Starbuck said. “Relax, I was just kidding. Lords, you two are going to be a blast tomorrow.”

***

Even without looking at the instruments, Helo could feel it as they entered the atmosphere. “Terrestrial DRADIS readings indicate that our landing coordinates are located in a major ice storm,” he said, tapping out navigational commands on the keyboard.

Boomer looked at her own informational screen. “Ice storm?” she asked. “It’s going to be hard to fly recon in a whiteout.”

“The plan was always to land and approach on foot,” Starbuck said. “And it’s not the flying in ice that’s the challenge; it’s the landing. So keep your wits up.”

Helo noticed her clutching her fist, subconsciously, like she was holding a stick. They all knew that Starbuck was the best pilot in the Raptor, but Boomer would never ask Starbuck to take over, and Starbuck would never offer. And both women were much better pilots than him, so Helo just tightened the straps securing him to the ECO station and prepared to guide the descent.

They got the crosswind even before they left the upper atmosphere, a force that knocked them sideways, Helo glad for his straps. Boomer stayed focused, leveling out the Raptor as she ducked below the dense cloud cover.

The cockpit window was quickly enveloped in a haze of white. This was when Sharon and Karl were their most Boomer and Helo. Moments like these that proved why you didn’t just put any pilot with any ECO, why Raptor teams had to work together, form a relationship, develop a trust. Boomer was flying blind but for Helo’s navigational readings. Starbuck could wax poetic about the perfection of flying a Viper all she wanted, but it was situations like these that Helo lived for. Solo pilot: she’d never understand.

“Sixteen degrees yaw!” he shouted.

“Sixteen degrees yaw!” she replied.

“Brace and ease up on the thrusters, in three, two, one—”

“Easing—”

“Your power curve reading—”

“Affirmative. Tweaking as we speak. Hull reading?”

“Twelve degrees. Watch your speed, five thousand and closing.”

“Copy.”

The Raptor was really rattling now, Boomer’s knuckles white. But they were still aloft, still flying, and that was all that he could ask for. “Hey,” he said, pitching his voice with as little urgency as possible. “You got this.”

She looked away from the window. Not that it made a speck of difference, since she couldn’t see anything anyways, but it spoke to her confidence. Their eyes caught, and she smiled. “We got this,” she said. He looked back to the display.

“One thousand,” he said.

“I hear you one thousand.”

The altitude decreased, and they were closing in on the target at an acceptable rate. They were right on target for landing two klicks out. The closer he could get Boomer to one and a half, the happier he’d be. Less walking and the pride of a more precise landing zone—besides, it wasn’t like anyone would spot them in this visibility from that distance. He gave her the coordinates—she flew.

“Going dirty,” he told her, punching in the command for the landing gear. It slid into place without a hitch, and Helo let out a sigh of relief: icing the gear was always a concern, in these temperatures.

Then he caught their speed. “Frak, Boomer!” he yelled. “Too hot!”

“Negative, Helo,” she replied. “Adjusting for—”

“You’re landing on snow, not a hard deck—”

That’s when they hit.

Portside first, flipping the Raptor over in the snow—once, twice, Karl was sure of at least, but the rotation force disoriented him. He jerked around in his straps, secure, but anything that hadn’t been dogged down was whipping around the cabin.

The Raptor came to a stop, rocked slightly on its side.

“Karl?” he heard Starbuck ask. He wasn’t sure if he’d been awake the whole time or was only just coming to. He groaned and released his straps, slipping sideways in his seat, and took off his helmet.

“I’m alright, Starbuck,” he replied. “Boomer?”

There was no response. All of the lights had gone out inside the Raptor, but he grabbed the flashlight secured under the nav station and shone it into the cockpit.

Her helmet had come off, somehow. She looked like she was sleeping, eyes closed, hair splayed out around her in a fan.

“Boomer?” Helo asked again. He touched her shoulder, no response. He shook her gently. “Sharon!” Her head nodded forward, the back of her headrest shiny with blood. “She’s bleeding!” he shouted.

“Careful,” Starbuck said, climbing over the seats. “Could be a spinal thing.”

It was almost warm in the Raptor, far warmer than Helo would have expected. He had almost acknowledged the strange crackling noise when--

“Frak!” Starbuck shouted, and he looked up. The aft section of the Raptor, the hatch above the engine, was smoldering. As they watched, a tendril of flame licked up the deck.

They were moving without communication now. Starbuck unstrapped Boomer and Helo hoisted her over his shoulder. Spinal injury or not, she’d be better off jostled than dead of smoke inhalation. Starbuck popped the hatch opening manually, and they stumbled out onto the snow.

By the time Helo had laid Boomer out flat, Starbuck was already headed back in the Raptor. “Starbuck!” he shouted, but she didn’t turn back. After several long seconds, she emerged again with a silver case he didn’t recognize, her forearm held over her mouth and nose.

She set the case down and turned back again. Helo grabbed her arm. “Kara, we can’t—”

She ripped her arm away from him. “What we can’t do is be stuck out here with no supplies. You know that. I think we’ve got another couple of trips worth before it gets too dangerous. Help me find the ditch kit.”

They found it, though little good flares and an emergency wireless would do them. On any other colony, the range would probably be enough, but this was Aquaria, with just one continent all the way on the other side of the globe. Still, the food and water and tiny folding stove would come in handy, and he was grateful that someone (surely not Chief Petty Officer Tyrol, for Helo wasn’t prepared to thank him for anything) had the foresight to include hats and scarves in the ditch kit.

Starbuck bundled up everything she could on her back, and Helo carried Boomer. Instinct told him to stay by the Raptor, stay by warmth and fire as long as they could, but that’s where instinct would have led him wrong. The low boom of the fuel exploding was enough to confirm that.

The cold was beginning to set in on their faces.

Their suits were rated for the cold of space, of course. Terrestrial temperatures were nothing, even freezing ones. But their helmets were still inside the Raptor, if not thrown and warped somewhere by the explosion. So they settled on balaclavas and hats and scarves to stave off frostbite, but the ice drove its way into all of the nooks and crannies it could find.

They walked until they were safely out of range. Starbuck stopped, shrugged of her gear, and snapped together the small tent. It was a Raptor ditch tent, designed for two. It was tight for Helo even in normal circumstances, but three made it a terrible squeeze. Still, at least it meant they were generating a fair amount of body heat.

Helo laid Boomer out on the tent floor, and Starbuck and Helo crouched above her.

Starbuck took off her glove and pressed two fingers to Boomer’s neck. “Pulse is there, but weak. It’s not a good sign that she hasn’t woken up yet.” A bruise was blossoming above her brow.

“Well, we shouldn’t move her until she’s stable,” Helo said.

“We can’t stay here for too long, Helo,” she warned. “Wasn’t that the lesson of the Earnest?”

The Earnest. Everyone had heard about it, the Aquarian research vessel that had gotten trapped in the ice, and the brave captain who’d led the crew of scientists across the frozen waste until they reached the ocean, where he converted their dog sleds into lifeboats and captained the small flotilla over five hundred miles to the nearest outpost.

Twenty-four of the twenty-five crew members made it back alive. It was miraculous, a true inspirational story about leadership and teamwork and the perseverance of the human spirit.

“Don’t talk to me about the Earnest,” he snapped.

Inspirational, that is, for everyone except the twenty-fifth:

Marnie Agathon, communications specialist.

Mom.

A giant bear of a woman with a mop of curly auburn hair, a warm smile, and a hug that was like falling into a feather mattress. Karl’s bond with his mother had been special, but there was no one, no one, who met her that didn’t adore her, Kara included.

“It’s relevant. Our transponder blew up,” Starbuck said. “Our wireless won’t reach anyone. The Old Man will come for us, but he doesn’t know where we are. By the time they cut through this visibility, it might be too late for us as well.”

Because that was the lesson of the Earnest: Mom’s death by pneumonia twenty days after the accident was what finally convinced Captain Roberts that they couldn’t remain at the ship, hoping for rescue.

“So what’s your grand plan?” he asked her.

“We need to find another way to contact the ship and tell them where we are.”

“I’m good, but I can’t build us a long-range wireless out of ice. And we’re not equipped to make it to Heim from here.”

She rocked back on her heels and sighed.

“What?” he asked, taking the bait.

“Look…you don’t know everything about this mission. That’s what Adama kept me to talk about, why he sent me and not some marine he didn’t know if he could trust. High Command doesn’t think this building we’re investigating is Aquarian in origin. We’re here on Aerilon’s request.”

“Aerilon actually asked the Fleet for help?”

“Which should tell you how serious this is. They think it’s a Canceron base.”

“That’s against Delta’s system treaty,” he said.

“You think?” she replied. “Come on, the Fleet didn’t send a Raptor just because Aquaria asked nicely.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. There was a time when she would have. He didn’t realize they weren’t in it anymore.

“The peace between Aerilon and Canceron is very fragile at the moment,” she said. “The information was being kept classified on the chance that Aerilon was wrong and this is just some suicidal cross-glacial hiker or something. I was authorized to disclose to you if I needed help destroying it.”

“That’s generous of you,” he said.

“Stop being a bitch and think about it. If we find a Canceron base on Aquaria, what else will there be?”

He still wasn’t pleased with the situation, but he was starting to understand where she was going with this. “A way to transmit off-world,” he replied. “Okay. Okay. We can complete our mission and still get off of here.”

“Right,” she said. She paused, looking down at Boomer. “But…we can’t take her with us, Helo.”

She didn’t have to say the alternative.

He and Starbuck had been in a situation like this before. Their first mission, on Troy. Stranded, no hope of communication, no rescue in sight, a long walk ahead, dwindling supplies. A wounded third member of their party.

Starbuck had killed him.

“Karl…” she said.

That man had been someone they’d barely known.

This was…Boomer.

Sharon.

He loved her. Probably everyone on Galactica knew he loved her, except maybe Sharon herself. Even without accounting for his feelings for Sharon, Boomer was his pilot. He was the eyes and she was the wings. He was the brain and she was the hands. They were two parts of a whole. A Viper pilot couldn’t understand, especially Starbuck, who never liked to admit that some relationships made you stronger.

“Don’t do it, Kara,” he warned, his voice low.

She took her gun out of its holster. “I won’t.” She said. But then she pressed the handle of the gun into his hands. “You know her better than I do. You owe her that much.”

They sat in silence for a long time, Karl turning the gun over and over in his hands as Kara watched.

“Who the frak passed her, I want to know,” Starbuck said finally. “Frakkin’ most unforgivable mistake an instructor could make. You don’t give a Raptor jock who can’t stick a landing a cute nickname about it, you fail them until they pass.”

“It was difficult terrain!” Helo barked.

“She was a shit pilot and you know it,” Starbuck replied.

“Don’t speak ill of the—”

“Of what, Karl, the dead?” she asked. She was close, her breath hot on his face. “That’s what she’s going to be. She practically is now. But we don’t have to be. Now do you have the balls to make a decision about it?”

Helo looked at the gun in his hands.

“I’m going back to the Raptor wreckage one last time, to see if there’s anything else we can salvage,” she said. “Meet me there.”

She left the tent.

He lifted the gun.

***

He joined her at the wreckage site, a few pieces of singed gear strapped to her back, along with the silver case he now realized had to be explosives. Starbuck didn’t seem to want to talk, and for that he was grateful. Wordlessly, he checked out the shattered bit of Raptor that had once held his station and it was as he’d expected: the navigation equipment useless. But he knew roughly where they’d hit: less than a day’s walk away, if only it weren’t already afternoon local. The paper nav chart was who knew where, but in one of the drawers he found an intact compass. He pocketed it, and they were off.

There wasn’t any opportunity to talk in the snow, their mouths covered, the wind much too fierce besides. He thought about Boomer. He thought about Boomer alive, the day they’d met, their pre-flight ritual of quoting terrible action movies, the touch of her hand, the curve of her face.

Anything else was too horrible to dwell on. His mind wanted to turn to dark places, but he fought at it, turned it away.

He didn’t know what Kara was thinking about. Didn’t care.

But the light from the sun, as far as he could tell, was starting to change. He consulted his compass and did the math in his head. He jogged a few feet to catch up to Starbuck, resting a hand on her shoulder.

“We need to stop before it gets dark,” he said. “Build a snow cave while it’s still light.”

He mostly worked on the cave, she mostly on the fire, buffeted from the wind and ice by a low wall she built. Around dinnertime, the storm finally passed, the night almost as clear and bright as any in space. They sat around the fire, faces warm, picking at their MREs. Now that the night was silent, it became clear that they weren’t just not talking. They were not talking, not even making eye contact.

They slept apart.

But—

In the night, he rolled over, and she was there.

“Starbuck,” he whispered. “Kara.”

She inched toward him. On a similar mission a long time ago, such closeness had led into sex, but that wasn’t what this was about, wasn't what they were about anymore. She buried her head in his chest, and he wrapped his arms around her. The proximity of body heat was warming, and for a second it was like they were back in her apartment on Caprica. Like nothing had changed, except for his fresh loss.

There were so many people gone from their lives. Zak. Boomer. His mother. Hells, her mother and father, for all she pretended like it didn’t affect her.

But they still had each other.

“I’m sorry about Boomer,” she whispered. “For the things I said about her. She was a shit pilot, but a damn good woman.”

“As good a friend as they come,” he added.

“I’d drink to that if we had any,” Kara said.

They fell silent again. Her hair tickled his nose, and he inhaled the familiar smell of sweat and cigar smoke and the non-reg citrus shampoo she’d been using since at least the Academy.

Then, in the grey dawn: “I’m sorry for making you shoot her,” she whispered. “I wish I’d done it for you.”

“I,” he started, but he had to stop, swallow to find the words. “I didn’t shoot her.”

“What?” she asked, tearing herself away and sitting up, cold air rushing into the space where she’d been.

“I couldn’t,” he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill Sharon.”

“You just left her?” she asked, horrified.

“I lifted the gun and I tried to pull the trigger…”

And where he had been expecting sympathy for his confession—comfort, perhaps, like he had always extended to her—there, on her face, he found none.

“You frakking coward,” she said.

“I care about her too much,” he said.

“Bullshit. Could you shoot me if I needed you to?” she demanded.

“Could you shoot me?” he countered.

“Absolutely,” she replied.

“What, no hesitation?” he asked, almost offended.

“Helo, we’re soldiers,” she said. “You think not shooting Boomer makes her any less dead? What if as she was bleeding out, she came to? Dying alone, and cold, and terrified?”

“Stop it!” he yelled.

“You think I don’t know how to grieve properly? Trying to shepherd me around, make sure I do it right? Well at least I don’t pretend like death doesn’t exist. I’ll always carry Zak in here,” she said, hand on her chest. “But how about you? When’s the last time you didn’t get defensive when someone talked about your mom?”

“You do not—”

“And Sharon? What, do you think that if you didn’t shoot her, it’s like she isn’t really dead? Well, listen up: you couldn’t have kept her from dying, but you could have kept her from suffering, you selfish bastard.”

“Frak you,” he said, and stood. The sky already looked lighter. Better to get a start, work on getting out of this frakking wasteland, than lie here, taking this. He began packing his gear.

***

Hours later, they peeked over the snowbank, inspecting the base, emblazoned with green and blue and yellow.

“Clearly Canceron,” she said. It was the first words they’d spoken. Even if they weren’t good on personal terms, at least they could settle back into their military patterns.

“Why would they paint a stealth base with their colors?” he wondered aloud.

“Pride,” she replied. “Oldest story in the worlds.”

Something didn’t feel right to Helo, but they weren’t going to get anywhere sitting here and staring at it. “You take point,” he said. “I’ll cover.”

“Yeah, if you think you can handle it, Lieutenant,” she fired back.

She looked over at him, but he didn’t dignify her with a response, focusing on loading his gun. She shrugged and loaded her own. When she finished, she crouched into position, and he gave her the signal.

She ran across the expanse to the front door of the base, but no shots were fired. She wedged herself into a protected corner and motioned to him. He joined her and they moved into position on the door.

Helo kicked the door open, and a blast of blessedly warm air hit them in the face. He was suddenly aware of the itchy wool covering his face, the irrational thought that with their balaclavas on and guns drawn, they looked more like bank robbers than anything else. Kara was already stripping off her scarf as they walked, but he left his on.

They were so busy enjoying the warmth that they didn’t hear the beeping. But Helo noticed the timer, just in time to see the numbers count down:

…03…02…01...

A light green gas filled the hallway. Starbuck fainted immediately, but Helo pressed his scarf against his mouth. He scooped her up in his arms and tried to walk down the corridor, but the wool wasn’t airtight. He began to feel numbness set into his limbs, his head spinning.

At some point he dropped her, but he barely even noticed, falling onto his hands and knees. He crawled out the door, into the fresh air, but the gas had already pervaded his lungs.

His hands were on the snow. Everything went white.

That was the last thing he remembered.

***

When Helo woke up, everything was still white. For a second he thought he’d blink and see the waves of the Styx lapping against the ferry bow, but then he blinked and still saw only white. Then he realized Elysium was supposed to be warm.

He was facedown in the snow.

Then he remembered the gas and dropping Starbuck. He pushed himself up onto his knees, and the colors of the world went crazy for a moment as he dropped back onto his hands and vomited.

And when he finished, there was still one thought. Just one thought.

Kara.

She’d asked if he’d be able to handle covering her. She didn’t realize that his main concern had always been protecting her, ever since the day they met.

He’d find her. He climbed to his feet and stumbled into the building.

***

It was bigger than he’d expected. Hallways and rooms, but no people, all silence but for the echoes of his running footsteps.

He was starting to wonder if this was all a dream, if he was still passed out in the snow, imagining an endless, empty building, when he opened a little door off a side hallway.

“FREEZE!” A woman’s voice shouted, and for a brief second all Helo saw was the gun pointed right at him.

But it was just Starbuck--seated in a chair in the middle of the room. As their eyes met, she dropped the gun into her lap, and he realized that she was bound to the chair by the ankles, waist, and neck, her hands tied together in front of her. And, gods, he was supposed to be mad at her, but all he could feel was relief.

“Not above a little Aquaria humor, huh?” he asked.

“Glad you could make it, Helo,” she said.

“Looks like you had it under control,” he replied. Her face was covered in bruises, a cut bleeding above her eye, but she was much better off than the two men in the room. Both dead, gunshot wounds.

She shrugged. “Took care of the bogies, but I wasn’t sure yet how I was going to get out of the door.”

Which was she closest he’d ever heard Kara come to admitting gratitude, so he’d take it. He knelt and began untying her. As he worked his way up, she rotated her shoulders, stretching out. She stood.

She hugged him, her head leaning against his shoulder, and he wrapped his arms around her. They stood like that for several long minutes, just breathing. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said. “When I woke up and you weren’t here, I thought maybe they’d killed you.”

“Nah,” he replied. “Just thought I’d take a little nap in the snow.”

After they separated, she slid her gun into its holster. “Helo,” she said. “There’s something you need to know. They were trying hard to fake it, but I’ve heard a lot of accents, and there’s no way my captors were Canceron.”

“What do you think they were?” he asked.

She shook her head. “If I had to guess, maybe Aerilon? I know that sounds frakked up.”

“Aerilons on the forbidden Canceron base?” he asked. “How does that make any sense?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance to see much of their operation.”

“I’ve been all over this building looking for you,” he said, “and it’s a skeleton. No arms, no reconnaissance gear. As far as I can tell, these were the only two people here. Wireless equipment, but they never even made any off-world calls. No military purpose in sight.”

“That’s been bothering me. You know, as…” she said, gesturing at the emptiness of the room. “What kind of military purpose could Canceron have with an outpost like this anyway? Breaking the peace treaty for what? An isolated base on the wastes of this shithole?” She paused. “No offense.”

“None taken. I’m ready to get back to Galactica, too,” he replied. He paused. “Wait. Galactica. Canceron doesn’t have anything to gain here, but what does Aerilon get if Galactica sends a recon mission?”

“Oh my gods,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “A Raptor flies overhead, spots Canceron colors, sends High Command the aerial photos. Then Aerilon has justification.”

“A first strike in a renewed war, and no one can accuse them of breaking the Delta Treaty first,” he said.

“Except Adama gave me strict orders not to let you return with incriminating pictures,” she said. “The Fleet wants peace, not war. We were to make sure there’s no evidence.”

“Boomer died for this,” Helo replied, disgusted. “Let’s burn this frakker to the ground.”

***

Helo and Starbuck watched the flames lick at the side of the building. “You ready?” he asked.

They covered their ears and she pressed the button.

When there was no more evidence for anyone to find, Aquarian, Canceron, or Aerilon, Helo got on the long-range wireless he had pilfered from their communications room.

Then there was nothing to do but wait. Their mission accomplished, Helo wasn’t really sure where they stood now. He wasn’t really sure where he wanted to stand. And so they sat in silence.

Yet…

She was trying not to show it, but he could tell she was cold, the way she kept rubbing her ears. Their breaths were both coming out in visible puffs of air, and he’d spent enough time growing up in the cold to know how difficult it was to sit and wait. Especially given how she’d lost the scarf somewhere in the building.

They had their problems, but Karl never could just sit by.

He unwound his scarf from his neck and handed it to her.

She looked at it, skeptically. “I don’t need it,” she said.

“I have frakking eyes,” he said.

“It’s yours,” she replied. “You need it.”

“I have the balaclava,” he said.

She took the scarf from him and stood. “Got a better idea,” she said. “Let’s both stay warm.”

He almost made a remark to the effect of how they didn’t do that anymore, hadn’t in a long time. But before he could decide if they were in a place for that kind of joke, she’d balled the scarf up and held it in front of her.

“Hit me,” she said.

“Hit you?” he asked.

“Remember sparring?” she asked. Of course he did, of their hours and hours at the gym as cadets. “Want to see if I can still beat you?”

“You only ever won because you play dirty,” he responded.

“It’s part of my charm,” she said.

Helo realized he kind of had to agree. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” And he tried to hit her.

Fists flying, noses running, a controlled fight that quickly devolved into snowballs, he realized that this was the relationship with Kara he had missed. She seemed more alive than she had in all the time since Zak’s death, and maybe he did, too.

Maybe this was who he needed to be. A best friend, free of judgment. Maybe this was how she needed him.

When the Raptor found them, they were lying together in the snow, laughing, his scarf wrapped around her neck, several handfuls of snow stuffed down the backs of each of their flight suits. It was Racetrack and Skulls, the new Raptor team, who came for them.

Raptor team.

For all the irrational pleasure of their last few hours, it all came flooding back. He wondered who he was going to ECO for now.

Helo pressed a piece of paper into Racetrack’s hands. Coordinates. “We have to get her body,” he said to her. She nodded, a glance passing between them. Racetrack moved forward to the co-pilot’s seat by Skulls, where they talked in quiet voices.

They found the site, the fabric walls of the tent remaining upright even in the wind. Racetrack and Skulls stayed in the Raptor, giving him distance, but Kara followed.

He took a breath and steadied his hands. This shouldn’t be so hard. Hadn’t he already seen her like this? He unzipped the tent.

She was as beautiful as ever, as peaceful. The color hadn’t even left her face, and there wasn’t as much blood as he was expecting—the bruise on her forehead a little different than he remembered, he absently noted, a strange trick of memory. He put his hands under her, to lift her.

She opened her eyes.

He scooted back, running into the walls of the tent and collapsing the ceiling so that the fabric clung to his head. “Sharon?” he asked.

“Helo?” she mumbled, dazed.

“Helo?” Starbuck’s stronger voice echoed from outside, “Come look at this!” But there was nothing else in Karl’s world but Sharon.

“I’m so cold,” Boomer said. He helped her sit up and wrapped her into a hug that lasted for what felt like minutes, her head on his shoulder.

“I thought you’d died,” he told her.

She needed extra help getting out of the tent, her limbs stiff with chill. Starbuck was bending over marks in the snow, examining them. “Does it look like something landed here to y—” she began, but as she stood and turned to see Boomer, she stopped, her mouth hanging open. “My gods, you’re alive,” she said.

Boomer tried to walk to the Raptor, but she was unsteady on her feet, weak, so he guided her arms around his neck and lifted, carrying her the rest of the way.

“I told them you’d always come back for me,” she said sleepily.

“Told who?” he asked. The ferryman? Had she actually gone to death’s shores?

She just smiled and closed her eyes, resting her head against his chest.

***

He looked around the rec room, but he didn’t see Starbuck. Not in her rack, either, or the mess, and he knew for a fact she wasn’t flying—they were, miraculously even Boomer, no more than scratched up, but still Doc Cottle ordered all three on off-watch for forty-eight hours, just to account for any reorienting after wandering around in the cold. Commander Adama didn’t lodge a protest, so apparently they were being given a reward for the job well done.

He found Starbuck finally in the pilots’ workout room, gloves on her fists, pounding at the bag. He didn’t say anything, just slid on pads, but as soon as he’d finished putting them on she turned around, so she must have known. She started pounding his fists without missing a beat, and he took it.

“Yours came back,” she said, finally. What she didn’t have to say was I’m glad you didn’t shoot her.

He hadn’t known how to let her grieve before. They grieved differently, him by denial, by moving on, and her by anger. She lashed out. Neither was wholly healthy. Neither was wholly wrong. What was wrong was being alone.

“I can’t replace Zak,” he said, moving around to steady the bag for her. “I don’t want to. But I want to be a better friend.”

“Don’t get mushy on me, Agathon,” she grunted as she punched the bag.