Disclaimer: I don't own 'em. I just play with 'em in my mind…

Authors note: I wasn't meant to write this story, I had another one in mind with other characters…but this one kept disturbing my dreams, stealing my work time and generally drove me crazy until I paid it some attention. This is not a 'story' as such – it's more a patchwork of moments, excerpts from her life…my own ode to Cally 

Handmaiden

She likes the smell of grease, the acrid tang of hot oil. Metal is cool to her touch, and she likes to let her fingertips glide over the silver curves of her charges. This is her duty – both a place of work, and a sanctuary. She took an oath to serve.

She's a metal maiden…

0o0

She sees the cracks appear, they're invisible to most - but she sees them, like the tiny hairline crazing across brittle ice. He's trying to hold the edges of his features together, but she senses it.

She thinks to herself that it's funny how fear can do that to you – how it can make you suddenly weightless, disconnected. Strange how grief and loss can feel so heavy on your heart and yet, at the same time, have this opposite effect.

"Are you all right, Chief?" It's a lifeline – grab hold and I'll keep you grounded. "Chief..?"

It's steadied him slightly, but she still sees the sadness run across his face – her heart breaks for him. "Get back to work."

She watches him leave, and thinks to her self that a good man like him doesn't deserve this. And then she remembers – none of them does.

0o0

"Cally…can you pass me that wrench?"

Careful of the skirt of her dress, she squats down low and peers into the dark underside of the truck. Watching her father bathed in the golden pool of lamp light – she thinks, as she often does that it reminds her of a weird kind of nest, cocooned in metal.

He stretches out and takes the wrench from her – sees her outfit and smiles. "Well I'll be. Somebody call heaven cos they're missing an angel tonight!"

"When are you going to come up with a new line?" Her eyes roll, the tone in her voice is one of mock disgust - but she grins back at him in amusement. It's a little private comedy routine just between the two of them - boom, boom. It's well rehearsed, but it's never lost the appeal of the fans.

"Scoot back for me – give an old man some space." She moves back and he slides out from beneath the truck frame, rising to stand before her. "Well go on then, give us a twirl!" He turns a grease smeared finger in a slow circular motion to demonstrate.

She runs her hands down the midnight blue velvet of her dress and there's a hot prickle of blush on her cheeks. It's embarrassing – but it makes her happy at the same time. She follows the action of his finger, and does a slow turn before him.

"So…guess they can turn a grease monkey into a lady after all?" Her hair is twisted up. The pale lobes of her ears even have earrings in them. She feels…pretty. It's not something she'd thought about before – it's was never something she'd sought out. Huh…it's not that bad a feeling after all.

He's silent. Glancing up, she sees the look of admiration and pride on his face. "Cally…" The voice is soft with emotion. He clears his throat and starts again. "Cally, you would have done your mother proud."

It's been so long. It catches her, surprised by the sense of loss that comes in response to the words. It doesn't take away the happiness of the moment, but it gives it a bitter twist – like biting into an extra tart apple, when you'd expected a sweetness promised by red skin.

Her throat constricts with this unexpected feeling, voice almost a whisper, she says, "Thanks Dad."

"Well then…" He's trying to lighten the tone – it's supposed to be a celebration. He makes a waving motion with his hands – encouraging her to leave the shed. "You better get a move on. Don't let this old grump hold you up – it's not every night you have a Graduation Dance."

She hesitates – the comfort of the tools, the slick heavy smells of viscous fluids and metal carcass hold some appeal. Glancing towards the truck she asks, "What's up with her – it's not the gear shaft again is it? If you hold off, I can give you a hand tomorrow…"

He laughs at the look of hope in her eyes. "Get on with you, girl! I swear – if half your brothers liked tinkering with junk, even half as much as you do, I could set up a full service garage."

She glances back at him and the grin is full faced and cheeky. "Well, if half of them were even half as good as me at it, you'd be able to open up a whole chain!"

And then she has to dance sideways to avoid the sharp snap of the flicked oil rag – and she's lifting the heavy fabric off the ground, trying not to trip, squealing and laughing like she's six again. Breathless…

0o0

Job code: 102-48B.

Test hydraulics / pneumatic systems – suspected leak. Re-calibrate weapons – right forward guns, displaying poor alignment. Re-fuel and re-fit emergency life assistance components – standard maintenance.

Check, check and… check. She completes the paperwork and hands the board over for QA signoff, glancing about, interested in the activity of the others about her. Her eyes return to the Viper. Gun metal grey…whoever came up with that description? Grey…it sounds so boring…it's more like silver.

The clip board is returned and she nods to the ground crew unit nearby, "Ok, you can take her back now, she's done."

0o0

Dark smudges pattern across the cream of her skin, and the heat from the fire is fierce, it feels like she's roasting in her suit. Sweat is running down her face – slicking her arms, legs, back. So hot, it's so damn hot...

The water pack on her back feels like a lead weight and she wishes, once again - she's lost count how many times now - that she was back in the hanger bay. People are screaming, running and moving about her, a melee of movement, pressing in on her and jostling her. Too much frantic action…

Prosna is shouting at her, but it's difficult to concentrate on what he's saying over all the other noise. The emergency claxon is sounding and announcements are blaring through the loud speakers.

"What?" Motioning at her ears, she shakes her head.

"…out. Take…use your supply. Pull back to….deck"

There's a sudden urge to cry with frustration. "Say again! I can't hear you…Prosna, just please…repeat it."

He sees the swirl of emotions – confusion, fear and exhaustion, and takes pity on her. This time the message is delivered slow enough for her to register it. "Cally. This is too big for us, I'm taking team A – we're going to try and hit it from another side. Go with Socinus and his group..."

A part of her is relieved, to be able to get out of the midst of the carnage even for a moment will be a welcome relief, but she's concerned. "Are you sure? I should stay with you, in case you need some back up, in case it's bad..?"

He grins back at her and pushes her in the direction of their friend. "I don't need a nurse maid! Get going…and put on your damn helmet…!"

"Who made you the Chief?" She does a mock salute at him, but she's not angry. He's starting to move away, and she grabs his elbow and flashes a grin, "Hey…no risks Captain Courageous – Socinus wants his cubits back from that last game…" He half laughs shakes his head at her gall, and then she's watching him leave. Gone…

The next time she sees him he's a blackened lifeless wreck in her arms, and her cheeks are wet, wet with tears that keep failing, etching clean streaks on her smoke stained skin…

0o0

Job code: 108-113A.

Aircraft power amplifier – complete overhaul required. Casing and wing panels – extreme damage, new electrical wire sleeves required.

How's my problem child today…? She runs a hand over the new wing panel feeling the indentations along the join lines. There's no discolouration, nothing to hint at the transformation from the previous day.

"Not bad, not bad at all…", and she can tell by the tone of his voice that he's impressed.

It makes her smile, "Yeah…I wasn't sure if we could do much for her, but…"and she studies the metal with a mothers' intensity, "…she came through in the end."

"Well, it's good work Cally", a slight pause and then he watches her for a moment. "You know since…well since the world went to hell and all, you've probably exceeded your last specialist grade level three times over. Both in actual work performed and demonstrated hours. You handle yourself well in the job, and your work is, well it's great…I'll check your job reports, but I think it'll just be a formality…"

It's a surprise. She hadn't really thought about it…guess there's just been so much else to worry about. After everything that had happened, she'd kinda figured that 'normal life' type stuff wouldn't be as important, it wouldn't hold the same cache…for her. Just in that moment she knows how wrong she was. Her heart starts to beat faster, a sharp staccato of anticipation… she feels this buzz of excitement. It balloons up and out, warming her chest. "Are you saying that I'm going to be promoted? For real…!"

The Chief is grinning at her, seeing her reaction, "Well, if you don't want it…?" It's a blatant tease, and he gets the right response.

She almost hits him, "Are you kidding! Of course I want it…" Her cheeks are starting to ache from the smile that's stretching across her face, but she doesn't care. There's been little enough to smile about for such a long time, it feels like she's basking in sunlight. Smiling… smiling is good…

0o0

"You're the CAG – start acting like one!"

"What do you mean by that!"

She's watching them. For god sakes – go get a room or something. Her eyes turn back towards the valve but one ear is half tuned into their argument. She can't remember the last time she had the opportunity to 'get a room'. Riley Swift…and he sure was, swift that is. She almost laughs out loud at how crass she is. Well, you won't have to worry about that anytime soon, cos there's no hope of any of that for the foreseeable future. It's not allowed. When serving together, and definitely not now…

Her fingers feel the release mechanism and she takes out the valve, trying to determine whether it needs replacing. It's not like before. Pre-'world-gone-to-hell' she would have just tossed it and got a new one, but now…now there's no endless supply of new 'anything'. No more manufacturers…no more suppliers…no more 'everything'. Now…now it was all about conservation, rationalisation and cost / benefit analysis suddenly has a much more important meaning. It's a borderline decision, but the rising volume from the Lieutenant settles it for her - she switches it out. She can hear her going to town on the new CAG, and there's no way she wants to cop any re-directed heat from her over the fix. Man…she is really kicking his ass…

There's a sudden laughter and she turns to watch them. She thinks that they look good together. It's a game she plays sometimes. She matches people in her head. Her job lets her see a lot of people and she gets to watch them, see their interactions, and overhear the private conversations. When you're up, under, over, in and on top of stuff 24 / 7 people get used to seeing you, they think you're busy, and after a while they tend to forget you're there - just a bit of furniture.

"How's it going? Did you fix it…?" She's startled out of her mental wandering…I gotta get some rest. It kicks off the mantra – something that had been rammed into them all during initial training. It's automatic and annoying…tiredness equals mistakes, and mistakes kill…and unfortunately true.

She turns towards the tall blonde women and she can see the exhaustion on her face, the utter weariness in the way she's holding herself up. She detects brittleness underneath the surface, a fragility that's normally better hidden.

"Yeah…faulty valve. It's been replaced." The relief registers in the other woman's eyes, and although she should be taking a few minutes break she feels an urge to reach out. "Hey – I've got a few minutes…what else have you got? I can give 'em a look now if you'd like…?" And the other woman visibly straightens at the offer. It's helped, a little…but then every little bit counts, doesn't it?

"That'd be great…outstanding! Thanks…"

0o0

She likes the feel of metal beneath her fingertips, the orange suit she wears and the smudges on her skin. She's perfumed with the cloying scent of solder, and her hands are often dirty.

She took an oath to serve…

She's a metal maiden.

-fin-