Waitin' For The Names

Well, the towns lay out across the dusty plains

Like graveyards filled with tombstones, waitin' for the names

The Eagles: Doolin-Dalton (the Desperado album)

The Skipper's keeping the lights dimmed right down.

I don't know if she's trying to save power, because the Lords know we'll need it, and I do know she's diverting power to the heating and air scrubbing systems and that means we have to save power elsewhere. But it looks like she's trying to keep a lid on things too, keeping things down-low and calm. Maybe she thinks that it's soothing or something. Or if it's dark enough, that the people down there won't realise how many we crammed into the hold and they won't panic about stuff like food and water and the deadly, deadly danger that we're in.

I don't think it will work. What they've got can't be soothed and it's not as if they can't tell by touch or sound or just by the Lords-damned smell how many of them we pushed into too small a space. We had no choice, and nor did they. Not if they want a chance.

At least the Skipper's kept them out of the crew's quarters. I only have to share with Ford and Grieves, not half the population of Gemon. Ford snores and Grieves has trouble with wind, but that's better than six families all piled into the cabin. I'm used to Ford and Grieves.

You know, I never thought I'd end up on a ship like this. She's been a good old ship and seen a lot of service in her time. I was lucky to get a berth on her. The Lords must have been smiling that day, the day that the Skipper was looking for a shuttle pilot and I was looking for a job. Because if I'd been at home on Taurus when it happened… well. We all know how that would've turned out.

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We were two days out from Gemon when the Colonies went, doing a run after collecting freight from Caprica and Virgo. None of us could believe it. One Colony, well maybe; maybe we could have understood that, although it would have been hard to take a loss as big as that. But all twelve? All twelve gone! It stunned the hell out of us. We're still stunned. It's like someone picked up the universe and shook it like a child's toy, and put it back upside-down with half the pieces missing.

I was on the bridge when the first live newscasts came in. I called the rest of the crew and for centars we listened to the broadcasts, to dreadful calls for help that became a frenzied pleading and that eventually faded into static. By then the entire crew was there, listening and weeping. None of us have much in the way of family back on our home planets, so I suppose we didn't have as much to lose as some, but still it hurt. It hurt bad.

When the last newscast faded, and nothing I did at the comms board picked up anything more, everything went so quiet on the bridge that I could hear my heart thudding. The Skipper swore once and dashed her hand over her eyes, but she picked herself right up and we knew she wasn't folding, not just yet; the hand wasn't played out. We weren't going to fold either, that's certain. She wouldn't let us.

For the next day she maintained our course and we monitored the scanners for Tinheads and the comms board for any traffic that would give us some idea what to do. I don't think she left the bridge for more than a few centons at a time. She spent the centars sitting beside whoever was manning the comms board, willing it to tell us something, anything. When finally Commander Adama's broadcast came in, she straightened her back, pushed back her hair and sort of rolled up her sleeves ready for action.

"Gemon's closest. We go there," she said to me and Tilly, who was monitoring the scanner. "Baum's from Gemon, isn't she?"

We knew what she meant. It would be both better and worse for Baum. The rest of us would probably never see our homeworlds' desolation, but Baum would. Baum would know what the rest of us had to imagine, and I can't say I know which is worse. We knew to keep an eye on Baum, though, and passed the word to the others—she's just a kid, the baby in the crew, and everyone looked out for her, anyway.

We jettisoned all of the cargo except for any edibles we found, and headed for the main Gemon spacefield to see what we could do. We didn't know what we'd find or how much of it would be left. Not much was. Gemon had primarily a services-based economy, servicing tourists from the richer Colonies—all the big space cruisers stopped off at Gemon to take advantage of the pretty coastal cities and the even prettier boys and girls. If I say that Gemon was the only one of the Colonies to have an official and licensed Pleasure Guild, you can guess what services it based its economy on. It was one of the least industrialised planets, certainly had nothing to do with heavy manufacturing, but still the Cylons had hit it hard.

There were half a dozen ships in orbit, with more coming in, and it took a couple of centars for us to sort out with them and what was left of the Gemonese administration, how we were going to play this. Adama's orders were to evacuate the Colonies and we could see for ourselves that it was the right call. There was no chance that we fight off the Tinheads and rebuild. The planet was a smoking ruin. From everything we'd heard over the comms board, so were the other eleven,

I might not have been back on Taurus for five yahrens, but I tried not to think about what it would look like now. It was easier just to stay focused on the job in hand.

There was enough clear space at the port for us to get our shuttles in, and we started the evacuation relay, working with the other ships. We have two shuttles. I took down my favourite, Shuttle One.

I made seven runs before the Skipper sent me off for some sleep, and Ford took over for a few centars. I don't know how many runs I did in the end; dozens, I suppose. We spent the next two days taking turns ferrying as many people as we could carry back to the ship, with Tilly and Mac doing the same in Shuttle Two. It was tough, but we saved some time not having all the orbital and landing protocols to get through—just speed down there, cram as many people as we could into the back of the shuttle, occasionally pack in food supplies as well, and speed back up. Turnaround time was pretty sharp after a couple of runs, as we got fast and slick.

Once they were just people going about their ordinary people's lives, now they're refugees who've cheated death. Old people, young ones, middle aged ones, teenagers, children, babies. Families that'd managed to stick together and families that'd been torn apart. People who were fit and hale, and people who I thought we'd be better leaving behind because they were broken and shredded from the bombing, and the shuttle was filled with that metallic stink you get from too much blood. More than one died on the way up and we had to leave them on the shuttle and space the bodies on the way back down. I cried the first time, but not after. I was surprised how quickly I got used to it.

It didn't make any sense to take them. They took the place of someone who might have made it, but I had to take whoever the marshals at the spacefield pushed through the shuttle airlock. The marshals just took the next in line, regardless, and I had no time to argue. Well. I don't know that I blame them for that. I don't know that I'd have liked to play one of the Lords and make impossible choices about who lived and who didn't. It's just that sometimes I wonder about the ones we left behind. I wonder what's going to happen to them.

We got out a lot of people, though. We're not a huge ship but we got over seven hundred, in the end, with thousands more on the other ships, before word came that the Tinheads were on their way back and we had to break orbit and run for it. But there were thousands of people, hundreds of thousands, waiting at the spacefield. We left them all.

The Skipper swore a lot, this time, and her eyes were wet. Baum was almost out of her head. We hadn't let her go to her home town—it was nothing but ash—and she hadn't seen anyone she knew at the port. The Skipper gave her a shot of something to calm her down and had Ford take her down to her cabin and stay with her.

I'm not sure what we've left all those people to, but I could see why Baum was upset. I never got out of the spaceport, so I didn't see much of what was happening on the ground. But every time I came back down and got into the landing pattern, the pall of thick greasy smoke that hung over whole cities was thicker and greasier. It covered thousands of square miles, and the Lords alone knew what was going on underneath it. I could smell it every time I opened the shuttle doors: the air was tinged browny-yellow and smelled of fire, wind and dust. Away from the coastal strips of the main continents, Gemon was always mostly desert. Now it's all smoke and sandstorms and the bones of the dead.

And the people we left behind.

The planet's a goner, like the rest of the Twelve. We're finished, I think, and most of us are dead. We just don't know it yet. We just refuse to lie down and give it up.

The Skipper's more optimistic than me. She just says that we're not dead yet, we're still here. She has to keep reminding us, so she says it a lot.

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I don't like going down to the holds, not since we left orbit. The Skipper goes down once every day and walks through, talking to people and letting them know where we are and how long to rendezvous. That's all she can tell them: there isn't anything else. She doesn't like doing it, I know. She usually has a slug of ambrosa when she gets back topside and I've seen her hands shaking. I don't think she's scared, exactly, but there's only one of her and more than seven hundred of them, and one day they're going to snap out of the grief and shock and then, maybe, there'll be trouble.

I go down there several times a day. I don't like it, but I do it. There are sick and injured to try and care for, and we've been giving out what rations we were able to find, eking them out and making sure the kids, at least, get something a day. Our hydroponics unit here was set up for a crew of eight and we can't do much with that. There isn't enough food enough to do more than keep the kids alive and things are getting pretty bad now. We're down to the last.

That's not why I don't like going down there, though. I don't like it because it makes me feel guilty. The people in the holds saw what I only caught a glimpse of. They saw what happened on Gemon.

The people in the holds are lost. Every last one of them, even the ones without a scratch on them, look… look shrivelled, as if they've lost so much that they're faded out, greyed over, the edges rubbed out. They're less than they were before, that's certain, as if the Cylons reached down into every single one of them and yanked something important out that they can't get back. You can see it most in the eyes. Their eyes are wide and dark and old, so wide that sometimes there's barely a rim of colour around them, like they're pulling the light down into them and never letting it go. Like they're trying to get back what the Cylons took.

Ghosts. They're still here, but they're ghosts.

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We all breathe a bit easier when we reach the rendezvous co-ordinates given in Adama's broadcast. The Galactica's there, buzzing with attack Vipers patrolling the gathering refugee fleet. We aren't the first ship in and the warriors have it all worked out, getting us into place amongst the other ships without fuss or delay. We're armed, although lightly, so we're put near a couple of unarmed freighters to help protect them if there's need. We all hope to the Lords that there isn't.

We're all glad to be here, and when the Skipper tells everyone, the ghosts look less thin and stretched and more as if they're really there, and there's even a faint breath of hope. We feel like we belong to something again. The daily comms traffic with the Galactica and the other ships reminds us that we aren't on our own. That's something. It's not all to our advantage, mind you, as Galactica makes us squeeze in a few more into the holds, shipping them in from ships even more crowded than ours, but it's better than feeling that there's nothing but us and a dozen burnt-out planets.

I've been on the Galactica a couple of times, ferrying some of the worst of the wounded over for treatment. They took my name the first time I landed. They'll need shuttle pilots, they said, and added me to a list. We'll see what comes of that, if anything does. The Skipper needs shuttle pilots too, and I trust her.

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It's two days before a shuttle arrives from the Galactica with warriors on board. The Skipper calls me up to the bridge to take them around the ship. The warriors have brought nothing with them although they promise supplies soon. Instead, says the Captain who's in command, they've come to assess what we need and to count both the quick and the dead.

I tell them that everyone's dead. They're dead inside, and dead in heart and mind.

"It'll make the count easier," I say.

The Captain gives me a hard look, as if I'd hit him, but I don't owe him a thing. Instead I tell him that the hold is dreadful now. It's a place where grief lives and terror walks at night. You can hear it in the nightmares when the sobs and screams filter up between the decks, and you can see it in the way the children sit still and silent, forgetting how to be children and seeing only what they saw back on Gemon. They'll never be the same again, they'll never be real children again.

The Skipper holds out a hand as if to stop me, and lays it on my arm. Her fingernails were once kept short and neat; now they're ragged and torn where she's bitten them and her fingers are trembling.

She says she knows. She sees and hears it too. She says that it's no use and we can only do what we can before we all have to lie down and give it up, but we aren't there yet.

The warriors say nothing, but the Captain looks away and can't meet my eyes. He looks drawn and exhausted; the skin is dragged at the corners of his mouth and his eyes are red-rimmed, and although I'd say he normally stands proud and upright, now his shoulders sag with defeat and the burden I've just slung on them.

The warriors have so many burdens, what's one more? It's no more than they deserve for failing us.

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The Captain's brought a couple of lieutenants with him and a crew of troopers. He sets the troopers checking for solium leaks—this is an old bucket of a ship, and she's held together by faith and Grieves, who for all her intestinal quirks is one helluva engineer. Still, it's a good idea to give the old ship the once-over with better equipment than Grieves has, and Grieves is happy to show the troopers over her precious engines. We leave her cooing happily and flirting with the Sergeant. The Captain comes with me and the two lieutenants into the hold.

"It's not good in here," I say to him. He's not likely to have seen much of the kind of life that's being lived in the holds. He's Caprican and he's noble-born, I'd say. What will he have seen of anything much at all?

"It's not good anywhere," he says, and follows me through the bulkhead door.

This is the first any of the ghosts in here have seen of the Colonial Warriors since it all happened. There's more of a reaction than I was expecting. It's like something has galvanised the ghosts, bringing them back into focus from the shadows.

"Apollo," says one of the lieutenants, the blond one. There's a warning in his voice, and a protest against something he can't stop. He has to be a man who's afraid of ghosts. Or maybe it's just that he's seen too many since it happened.

"Yeah. I see it," says the Captain.

There's a raised walkway that runs the length of the hold, with the cargo bays, fifteen on each side, opening off it. Normally each one of those bays would hold everything a family owned as we shipped them from one colony to another. Now each one holds a family, or six. When they lie down to pass the night in bad dreams, they lie in serried rows, each within an inch or two of the next in the row. They look like the dead laid out in such neat rows, like a graveyard waiting for the tombstones.

The ghosts have started staking out their claims, marking their territory with whatever they were able to salvage: a bag or a box here, a bundle of clothes there, and even, now and again, a length of fabric hung to divide up the cargo bay and give the illusion of a real division, of privacy. It hasn't taken long, this need for separation to come to the fore. So far, though, I've not heard of any fights. They'll come.

The sight of the warriors stirs them up. They crowd onto the walkway, calling and shouting, trying to get noticed. The warriors clasp hands and try to be reassuring, but I can see they're not comfortable with it. Well, they've been found out. They must be embarrassed to be greeted as heroes when really they're hollow failures.

The joy is short lived. Things start getting ugly when a woman demands to know when we'll get food and water. She has two children clinging to her skirts, their eyes big in pale, pinched little faces, so I can see why she's agitated. Her voice is shrill with everything she's lost and she refuses to be placated by the Captain's vague promises that relief is on the way. She puts her hands on the kids' shoulders and laughs in his face when he tells her to be patient. I like her. Telling her to be glad she's alive… well, I don't like being condescended to either. She's okay, even if she does set off a chorus of demands for supplies, for information, for reassurance that we haven't been left behind.

I stay back and watch as an old couple come forward, the woman gabbling in Gemonese. The Captain looks flustered for a micron; he doesn't speak Gemonese and the other Lieutenant, the Leonid, who seemingly can, has been sent off to call the Galactica with a prelim report, and is down the other end of the hold near the bulkhead door we came in by, out of reach. Well, I don't speak it either, so I can't help him. A girl translates for him, and, wow, does she start off a storm! She's been sharing a compartment with about twenty or thirty other people, and it doesn't look as though they're all happy with that arrangement. She's about my age, I think; dainty and pretty and in a dress that shows off more of her arms, legs and chest than the people here seem comfortable with. I like it. It's a pretty dress.

Still, her being pretty is no reason for that woman to tell the Captain to jettison the girl with the dead. That seems a little harsh, given what they've all survived together. Not that I'm naïve enough to think that an escape like that puts people more in charity with each other, or makes them more thoughtful or kinder. No, I know it makes them bitter and vengeful. But it wasn't this girl's fault that the Tinheads came.

"Bloody Otori," someone mutters behind me just as the bitter woman snarls out: "Dirty socialator!"

Then I understand.

I've only been to Gemon a few times, and I never got out of the main cities, but I heard about the strange sects who lived outside of them. Gemon was a strange mix of pleasure-planet in the cities and religious fanatics out in the desert. The Otori are the most fanatical of them all, and the socialators the most pleasure-giving—they're the best of Gemon's service industry workers, the ones licensed by the Pleasure Guild. I had a lovely time with a socialator or two myself when I visited Gemon; they were expensive, but skilled. Worth every cubit. They had such clever tongues and fingers.

So if we have a socialator and Otori in the same compartment…well, not a mix made in heaven, then. The last few days in this compartment must have been torment for everyone.

The Captain goes up a notch or two in my estimation. He doesn't hesitate to help the girl, who has a broken wrist, and gets the blond Lieutenant to escort her and the old couple to the Galactica's shuttle. When he looks at the Otori woman, he looks like he's smelling something bad. He doesn't like that kind of fanaticism, you can tell, and it's taking everything he's got keeping him from saying something. There may even be a decent man underneath that uniform.

A man grabs the Captain's arm to complain. "It's a sin to starve us while the bureauticians are luxuriating in their private sanctuaries!"

The Captain drags his attention from the Otori woman and shakes himself free. I get the impression that he doesn't like being touched and crowded. Still, he's very polite. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm afraid, sir. No-one is in luxury, I promise you that."

There's another man close by, one with a discontented face and a sour, down-turned mouth. This one surely needs to be told to count his blessings and be thankful he's alive. The Captain should try that line with him. He might have more luck than he did with the woman.

"No! You're lying! I saw it with my own eyes, over on the Rising Star before I was cast out and put here amongst the borays of humanity."

"Hey!" I say, outraged. I'm not the only one, either, to be giving old Sourface a hard look. There's being bitter and vengeful, despite being alive against all then odds, and there's being downright insulting to your fellow refugees. If he doesn't keep his mouth shut, I suspect someone will shut it for him and teach him a few manners. He'd better not come running to me and the rest of crew for help, either. We're all very well-mannered.

The Captain just stares at him, his disgust obvious. The Leonid Lieutenant is back and taps him on the shoulder, drawing him away from the two men, closer to where I'm standing. I'm sorry, actually, because the Captain looks for a micron as though he really, really wants to hit something and Sourface is very handy. I'd like to see him getting his face punched and a bit of me is sorry that the Captain has too much self-control to do it. And too much sense to cause a riot, I suppose, but still.... It's a nice, wistful moment while it lasts.

"Core Control is aware of the problem, sir," says the Lieutenant quietly. He doesn't look happy. He looks like the Captain did a few centons ago, when the Otori woman disgusted him.

The Captain doesn't look happy either. His tone shows that he already knows the answer, and it could only signal his anger and frustration better if it came with laser bolts and explosions. "So I can tell these people help is on the way, can I, Boomer?"

"Core Control is aware of the problem," repeats Lieutenant Boomer, and he looks as pissed off as old Sourface.

The Captain closes his eyes and sighs. Just for a micron, I'm sorry I gave him so much grief when he got here. I'm tired and I'm hungry, and for the first time I realise that he is, too. He's been dealing with this shit for days. He's too tired to hide it any more.

"Let's get the hell out of here," he says. "Sergeant Brooke can handle the census—she knows what's needed." He gives me an odd look. "If I can drag that engineer away from her."

I grin at him. Grieves doesn't give up easily and she likes the Sergeant.

"Where are we going?" asks Boomer, hurrying after him, with me following on behind.

"To check out the Rising Star," says the Captain. He stops by the first man, the one who started off old Sourface's complaining. "Help is on the way," he says firmly. "You have my word as a Warrior."

It falls to the woman with the kids to put that into perspective for him. She must have been practising the shriek of maniacal laughter that follows her mocking repetition of his words, but believe me, the practice has paid off. She cackles like one of the desert dogs on Borallus, the ones that hunt for carrion and howl at the moon on the desert fringes. She starts off an entire chain reaction of laughing and cursing, mostly cursing, and we hurry out of there before the ghosts remember the power of numbers and things get really nasty.

The other Lieutenant is waiting by the bulkhead door, his laser in his hand. The Captain pushes me through first, and as soon as he and Boomer are through, he slams the door closed.

I turn to tell the Captain that I'm no shrinking violet that needs protecting by the big hunky warriors, thank you very much, but he's slumped against the bulkhead looking so tired that I feel sorry for him.

"That was close," says the blond Lieutenant.

Lieutenant Boomer snorts. "You have no idea, Starbuck."

The Captain tilts his head back to rest it against the metal wall. "You can't blame them, Boomer. They've lost everything."

"I lost a lot myself," says Boomer, and pain and grief cause crinkling lines around his eyes. "So did you, Apollo."

The other Lieutenant, Starbuck, watches anxiously. I suppose I haven't given it much thought, but the warriors must have had people they cared for at home, and who aren't there any more. That's one heavy load of grief and guilt they're carrying, and now I am sorry that I laid more on the Captain when he arrived. Maybe he didn't need any more burdens, after all. Maybe he has enough of his own.

"I know," says the Captain, wearily. "Where's the old couple and that girl?"

Starbuck nods towards the next bulkhead door. The socialator's there with her good arm around the old woman, comforting her. The old man, who's sick with a fever, the socialator said back in the hold, is sitting on the floor at their feet.

Boomer looks from his Captain to Starbuck. "I'll get them aboard the shuttle," he says and hurries away, gathering up their passengers as he goes.

The Captain sighs again. "I'd kill for a couple of centars' sleep," he says, and looks at me. "Will they settle down again, do you think? I'd hate to leave you with trouble to handle."

I shrug. "Hard to say. The shock's kept them pretty docile, but they're starting to get stirred up. We're getting hungry, Captain Apollo, and we're all scared."

"Me too," he says, and scrubs at his face with both hands.

Starbuck puts out a hand that, in a just-by-accident-couldn't-possibly-have-intended-it fashion, brushes for a micron against the Captain's cheek on its way to rest, in approved-military-manly fashion on his shoulder. The Captain tilts his head to press into the touch. It's brief, but I see it.

The Captain meets my gaze and I grin at him. I won't say anything. The ship's not called what she is by chance and I reckon he's looked at her crew and realised that.

"Thank you for your time and help," he says, formally, as he straightens up. "I appreciate it." He shakes hands, and adds, "I remember your name from somewhere, you know. Have you been to the Galactica since you got here?"

"I'm a shuttle pilot. They put my name on a list when I was over with some casualties for treatment," I say.

"I asked the Deckmaster to do that. I'm putting all the Galactica's shuttle pilots back onto full combat duty and we'll need good people to replace them." He looks at me gravely "Are you a good shuttle pilot?"

I take that as he meant it and nod back, just as grave, but with the same humour lurking underneath. "I am. But I like it here."

"It's a good ship," he concedes.

I grin at him. "We're the best. Colonial Movers: we move anything, anywhere."

"Yes. But we'll still need you." He smiles at me briefly and turns his attention to Starbuck. "Time to go, Starbuck. We've a rumour to check out over on the Rising Star."

"Ooh, so I finally get to check out how the rich people live," says Starbuck.

"I hope not," says Captain Apollo. "I really hope not."

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"Did they get what they came for, Dietra?" asks the Skipper, later.

"The Sergeant finished the census, so I suppose so," I say. I lean my head down so it's resting on her breast. I can hear her heart thumping in its slow, regular rhythm. I'll get it beating faster than that before the night is over. I suck on her for a micron and smile when her heart rate speeds up. Her nipple tastes a little salty. "They might want me to go to the Galactica at some point, to drive one of their shuttles."

She runs one hand over my hair, pressing my head closer. The other cups my left breast. She squeezes the nipple, rolling it gently between fingers and thumb and I feel the heat start to pool between my legs. She has clever, skilled fingers, has the Skipper.

"Well," she says. "You're still young. You can't stay on the Sappho forever."

"We'll see," I say. "Nothing's forever."

"No," says the Skipper. "But we're still here."

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September 2008

5271 words.

For those who need the reminder, one of the refugee ships is the Colonial Movers ship and Dietra is one of the Galactica's (all female) shuttle pilots, who along with Serina, Bree and the others, is trained on Vipers by Apollo and Starbuck to replace the sick male pilots, in Planet of the Lost Gods.