The sky looks like someone's tumbled a child's paint box across it, all crimson and gold, violet and sapphire. Just there, just above that hill across the lake that looks as if the same someone chopped off a chunk with a knife, there's a patch of pale green, so clear and pure that it makes the breath catch in my throat as I watch it deepen into the colour of malachite. The landscape's desolation is lovely in itself in a stark sort of way, but that sky is a glory, enough to make every heart ache.
There's something about it, probably the sheer inhumanity of it, that's a little bit terrifying.
You forget about this kind of thing, living in a space ship all the time. You forget about air that doesn't taste of old socks and last sectar's meals. You forget about how breathtakingly beautiful a landscape or a view can be, when all you usually have to look at are grey metal walls and grey metal floors and grey metal ceilings. Oh, you get a glimpse of beauty now and again, if your wall or floor or ceiling is on the outside of the ship and has a precious viewscreen to the stars outside, white and silver against a blackness so immense that the heart fails in trying to encompass it. But for all that, it's a cold and colourless beauty, dull from its very constancy. It always looks the same: stars don't change while you're watching them.
So you forget. You forget about standing at a lake-side to watch a red sun set in splendour on the far shore, sinking down behind hills as rounded as a breast, tipping the edges with gold.
"This place is having a very strange effect on me," I say, worried. "I'm starting to think like bad poetry. Any centon now and I'll break out in blank verse."
"It's lovely," says Bree. She tucks her long hair behind her ear and sighs happily.
"It's a sunset. I know it's pretty, but it happens here every day even though we aren't here to see it, and I really, really should stop with the romantic felgercarb about it just because this evening, we are."
"Dietra," she sighs, disappointed.
"What? It reminds me of the Gold Coast on Gemon."
"I thought that was all resorts and sex and socialators servicing beautiful people. Where does that fit with this?" She makes a wide sweeping gesture with her arms.
Bree's very young. She still hasn't realised that pretty sunsets are all very well, but a clever socialator is a godsend. She probably also hasn't realised that making wide sweeping gestures like that make her shoulders go back and her pretty, pretty breasts come forward, and that it makes me want to get her out of that uniform so that I can get my hands and mouth onto her.
She glances at me and smiles, and perhaps she has realised after all. But the Captain's only about ten metres away, so that's out.
"The Gold Coast is pretty. It's not just about sex and money, anyway," I say. "Well, maybe it is. Anyone can be beautiful if they have enough cubits and the sex was pretty damn hot. Those socialators had very well trained mouths and fingers. I learned a lot."
"Dietra!" Bree sniggers, her face as scarlet as the band of clouds on the horizon.
"As you know," I say.
"Ladies!" The Captain turns from where he's been talking to the techs and is walking towards us. "If we're quite over the girlish confidences, there's work to do." He gives me one of his patented serious looks, the one that has the humour dancing underneath where you really have to look to see it. "I know you're pretty hot against gender-stereotyping, Lieutenant Dietra, so I hesitate to suggest you set up the field kitchen in case you yell at me."
"Which I would," I say.
"I thought so. Starbuck will do it, instead. And I hope you realise the sacrifice I'm making in the name of diversity and equality. After all, I've tasted the disgusting glop Starbuck produces from our rations."
"Me, too," I say and pull a face just as Starbuck makes some inarticulate protest in the background about the slight to his culinary prowess. Actually, the captain's being kind about it.
"Then we all suffer for our principles," says the captain, just as the sun drops down behind the hills and everything goes a dark grape-purple in a dusk that smells, astonishingly, of cinnamon, "You two have the first watch. Two centars patrolling the camp, four centars off. And don't worry: we'll save you some disgusting glop."
He's all heart, that man.
I've got to know the captain pretty well over the last yahren. I didn't like him much when we met just after the Destruction, when he came to our ship a couple of days after we reached the rendezvous point to do a headcount on the refugees we had crammed into our holds. He was brusque and angry and difficult to deal with, as if someone had rammed a Viper up his astrum, and at first I didn't see how bone-deep weary he was, how tired of trying to deal as best he could with everything he'd seen and done. I started to change my mind when he stopped a riot amongst the refugees before it could really start, just by being exactly what he is: an honourable man who wouldn't lie to them. Not that they cared about that; they were all desperate and dying inside with the pain that was almost too much to bear. They were just hunting for someone to blame. I'd blamed him too, back then, the way I blamed every warrior for not preventing the Destruction. I suppose I blamed him for not being dead, like everyone else and it was only later, when I was transferred to the Galactica to be a shuttle pilot, that I realised that all the warriors were as dead with pain as everyone else, really.
They just hadn't realised it yet.
There are still centons when the anger sweeps over me like acid. I didn't have much in the way of family and I hadn't been back on Taurus for yahrens, but just the thought of it all being gone, all gone and nothing left but ash and dust… well, sometimes there's nothing to do but retch over the turboflush and bawl your eyes out.
You learn to live with loss, but you never get used to it. Never.
We're all up and around early, just after dawn. The sun coming up isn't as pretty as it was last night and the land just looks bleak and desolate under a grey sky. There's a cold breeze coming over the lake, bringing with it the threat of rain.
The captain sorts out the duty roster pretty fast. "Bree, Engineer Fane says that the sensors show those hills may be full of minerals we can use and he wants to do some mapping. Take his team for a preliminary flyover, will you? He's worked out a search grid already. Use Shuttle Two and check in every centar."
"Sir!" she says smartly, and she's gone, running to the shuttle for the preflight checks. She runs very nicely, I have to say. Women don't, usually, because they have to run with their arms across their chests to stop everything bouncing. But Bree is lithe and slender and nothing bounces. Sadly.
Still we had a tent to ourselves last night and Bree didn't need much encouragement to do the arm exercises again. What she has may not bounce, but they do pointing forward perkily very well indeed.
"What about me?" I say.
"I think it's time we checked out the city." He looks across the lake to the towers and minarets on the far shore. He reaches into the arms case that Starbuck's dragged out of Shuttle One and pulls out a laser rifle. He tosses it to me. "We'll all go."
We already knew that the city was deserted. All the telemetry the Galactica had gained from its high orbit drones and the closer scanning we'd done on our way in, had shown that what little population there was on the planet was diffuse and scattered. There are very few centres on this planet, and even fewer of those are larger than a hamlet. Most have only a few dozen life signs concentrated in and around them. There's no evidence that the villagers have anything more technologically advanced than wood fires.
There had been cities once, and roads and industries and power generation centres, but not anymore. Now there's nothing but darkness and ruins.
It takes us about ten centons to fly into the centre of the city. Jolly's driving the shuttle and the captain has him do half a dozen fly-overs before he lets him land in a huge windy plaza. All we've passed over are ruined buildings, roads with great chasms cracking open across them, vegetation that's starting to soften all the hard edges. On the edge of the city, the buildings are smaller, people-sized, and look as though they've just fallen down from neglect. Here in the centre, they're bigger and more daunting and damaged. There's no sign of any people anywhere.
It's not a very alien city; I'd have thought it would be stranger than this. Oh, the architecture's different than anything I've ever seen before, but the architecture on Caprica was different to Taurus – they liked pyramids on Caprica – or Scorpia where no building was over two storeys high or Leo where they had a thing about tall phallic towers. Those sorts of differences are superficial. Here, as in any human city, you had a central municipal part with huge public buildings meant to impress, with the suburbs made up of the buildings that people actually lived in.
It's recognisable. I'd have preferred something completely alien. This city is too like one of ours to be comfortable.
"What do you think happened?" Starbuck isn't usually subdued, but the deserted, ruined city streets have to impress even him. He's quiet and withdrawn and that's not usual.
Apollo looks grim. "Nothing good." He points to a domed building at one end of the plaza we're hovering over. The dome is shattered, great shards of it missing, like an egg shell cracked open. Some of the rubble lies in the street. "That doesn't look like something that just fell into disrepair. It looks like explosive damage to me."
Something blew the dome out, that's certain.
"Most of the buildings show the same sort of damage," says Boomer. "Dietra – why don't we take a look?"
The captain nods. "Jolly, stay with the bus and be ready to take off fast if we need it. Starbuck and I will try over the other side of the plaza. Be back here in fifteen centons. Radio check."
"Check," I say, echoed by Boomer and Starbuck and a glum-looking Jolly, and we part company.
Boomer gives me a quick grin as we go to investigate the nearest big building. We're good friends, him and me. We were together for a little while once; just after I was transferred to the Galactica, about the time the captain married and was widowed in a couple of days. But everyone still being shocky from the Destruction isn't much of a basis for anything permanent. I mean, did anyone really think it was a good idea for the captain to marry Serina that fast? Everyone was grabbing at whatever they could get, just to say they were still alive and prove they still had breath in their bodies. Me and Boomer proved we were breathing quite a few times before we realised what we were doing and stopped. The captain, though – well, I think he grabbed to please the commander. He didn't grab the one he should have grabbed.
I'm biased, though, when it comes to what I want to grab. Boomer's a great guy, but I still like girls better. Bree, now, isn't grabbing. It's more considered and careful than that.
Still a lot of fun, though.
The doorway of the building is wide, but not that much taller than Boomer. He can get in without having to duck, but there's not a lot of clearance. It's dark inside, shadowy, with a shaft of grey daylight stabbing in through a great gap in the ceiling where the roof's caved in; enough to cast the shadows, not enough to light the place effectively. Not even the flashlights we brought with us can do much through the gloom. It was a library of some sort, though, that much is clear. There's a big central hall, with stack after stack of bookcases around a well of desks in the middle. The desks are a funny shape, long and close to the floor, short legged. They're piled deep in rubble and somewhere I can hear the dripping of water. But the books – well, scrolls, really – are surprisingly undamaged. I unroll one or two. They seem to be made of a thin, flexible metal, covered in a dense, cuneiform text with little, jewel-like illustrations in bright colours that catch the light.
"This looks like gold leaf," I say, showing Boomer illustrations of strange mythical beasts — at least they looked mythical to me. They were probably the local equivalent of bovines or daggits. "Look. Pity we can't read any of it."
"Apollo will like those," says Boomer, so I push three or four into my backpack and we go back out into the plaza.
Total sum of knowledge gained: zilch. And it's started to rain.
"Nothing much to see," I say when we get back to the shuttle where Jolly's waiting. I don't like this place. It's making me uncomfortable.
I wonder if the ruined cities back home in the Colonies look like this yet, or whether it will take a few centuries.
"Not even any bodies," says Boomer. "Even if it was hundreds of yahrens ago, you'd think there'd be something left. How long does bone last?"
"Longer than I want to think about," shudders Jolly.
Starbuck appears in the doorway of the building he and the captain were looking at and waves us all over. "Jolly, too," he calls. "This place is deserted."
No danger, he means. I hope he's right.
"I think we got a museum or an art gallery," he says when we join him. "What about you?"
"Library, or something," says Boomer. "No sign of people."
"I've got a couple of books for Apollo," I say.
Starbuck rolls his eyes. "You don't have to suck up to the captain, Dietra, he already likes you."
Boomer catches at his arm. "No sign of people, Bucko," he says. "And I mean no sign at all."
"Maybe they all evacuated, before whatever it was happened. No sign of any in here either." Starbuck shrugs. "Come and take a look. It's pretty interesting."
Apollo is in one of the windowless galleries, the pool of golden light from his flashlight illuminating a painting of some sort. He glances round when we join him, his face all shadows in the dim backwash from his flashlight.
The pool of light goes from painting to painting. The people in the paintings don't really look human: they're almost as broad as they're high, and they're hairy. They have heads and arms and legs, so they're the right sort of shape, I suppose, but their faces aren't… well, they don't look much like faces.
"They're a little bit vertically-challenged," says Boomer.
"And overcompensating horizontally." But Starbuck's heart's not in the banter, I can tell.
"They're sort of humanish," says Apollo. He sounds strange, as if something's stolen his breath. And he sounds cold. "More than just a human sort of shape or because they built a recognisable sort of city, I mean."
I see what Apollo means and what's put that odd note in his voice. The real problem isn't that the people of this place weren't very tall and were very broad instead. The real problem is that you could have put these paintings into any gallery in the twelve colonies and what they represented would be instantly familiar. These are domestic scenes. The people in the paintings had lives and families and did the same sorts of things that people back home had done before the Destruction, when we still had lives and families and homes. We can all see it.
Apollo's face is set. Starbuck's voice trails away into nothing and Jolly's swearing softly to himself under his breath. Boomer's turned his face away from us and all I can see in the gloom is the back of his head.
"I think that they must have been like us in the ways that matter," says Jolly after a few centons, and his tone belies his nickname.
Boomer nods. "Yeah."
Starbuck says, very quietly, "They were born and lived and... loved, do you think? I think they did. Those two there, they're holding... well I was going to say holding hands, but they're holding whatever they had instead of hands. It might not mean anything really, but..."
"I think it does," I say. "I mean—" I hunt for words, as hesitant as Starbuck was. "If they weren't like us, and living and loving weren't important, then why would they paint this stuff? I think you only do that when you know that it's the most important thing there is and you have to preserve it for after you've gone, for other people to see."
"People like us," nods Boomer.
"And just like us, they die," says Apollo. "They live for a little while, and then it's all over and there's no coming back." He looks up towards the ceiling and all around us and there's an odd expression on his face. "All the lights go out."
"I wonder what happened to them," I say, and I can hardly recognise my own voice.
Apollo's voice is low and harsh, bitter as death as he turns all our words on their heads. "People like us happened to them, probably."
We all stare at him.
"It was one of two things, wasn't it?" he says in that same cold voice, the sort where the tremors lurk under the smooth surface. "War and battle and destruction happened here and either people like us, warriors and soldiers, did it to them because they were the enemy, just like the Cylons were our enemy. Or the people like us were failures and let their enemies walk all over them and destroy them, the way we let our enemies destroy us. The way we failed."
"Apollo—" says Boomer, helplessly.
The captain shakes his head and turns away. "I used to love the gallery in Caprica City," he says. "The one in Ramses Square. Did any of you know it?" He stops and no-one dares say anything. He says, very quietly, "The lights are out there now, I guess, too."
"I think some of that's right," says Starbuck. "Something bad happened here. But Jolly's right, too. If they were like us in the ways that matter, then what matters isn't that they're gone but that they were here at all." He grimaces. "Lords, that sounds trite. You know what I mean."
He meets Boomer's gaze and jerks his head towards the door. Boomer nods, and takes my arm, his other hand on Jolly's shoulder.
"Why don't we take a look around on another floor?" he murmurs and pushes both of us towards the door. Neither of us needs to be pushed, actually, since neither of us is stupid.
At the door I pause and glance back. There's a pool of light where Apollo and Starbuck stand, and Starbuck is talking earnestly. I can't hear what he's saying. Apollo has his head bent and he isn't saying very much but he nods once. Starbuck puts out one hand and cups Apollo's cheek with it; his other hand is resting on Apollo's hair.
I turn away quickly. I wasn't meant to see that. Nobody was meant to see that. So I pretend that I didn't.
The rain cleared mid-afternoon and tonight's sunset is as glorious as last night's. One of the techs said that it's probably normal around here to have spectacular sun-downs, and whatever happened here to this planet and its people did something to the atmosphere and the weather patterns and these magnificent skies are the result. Maybe before that. the sun just went down behind the hills and nobody remarked on it because the evening just got dark without the sky being painted first. It would be a shame to miss out on sunsets like these, but I guess it would depend on your perspective. It's quite the sacrifice to make, losing your entire world to get a pretty sunset, to get such beautiful light before the darkness comes.
Taurus used to have pretty sunsets.
Boomer comes up behind me. "Nice," he says, with a nod at the sky.
Tonight there's more violet and indigo and that pale spring green. It's very nice. It makes something in my chest hurt.
After a centon, he says, "Apollo's a bit hampered by that religious upbringing of his. It sort of force-fed him a conscience and he can't seem to get rid of it."
"It's stupid blaming yourself for the Cylons, though."
"I don't think he does. I do think he blames himself for not getting back to the Fleet in time to warn everyone and for losing his little brother on the way. Apollo doesn't like failure." He grins at me, but there's a sadness to the way his mouth twists. "Starbuck can deal with him better than anyone."
"I know. Starbuck's the right antidote for a religious upbringing. He's like an inoculation against guilt." I grin at him. "But not against sin."
He looks alarmed, because he knows what I saw. "Dietra—"
"He doesn't like failure and he's a very private man. I know. I won't say anything."
Boomer smiles and puts his arms around me and rests his chin on the top of my head, for a centon before giving me a little shake. He laughs softly, kisses my cheek and pats Bree on the shoulder before walking back to patrol the camp. He and Jolly have the watch. Apollo walked off down the lakeshore half a centar ago and Starbuck followed him. They're nowhere to be seen.
Bree looks at me curiously. "Cryptic," she says.
"I was thinking how everything comes to an end." I look at the sun. "It will come back, day after day, for thousands of millions of years. We'll see it for two or three nights and eventually, we won't see it at all."
"Still," says Bree. "At least we've seen it. And at least we see it right now."
She comes a little closer, her hand slipping into mine, and we watch the sun go down.
08 August 2009
Inspired by a brilliant sunset and Thomas Campion's setting of Catullus's poem
MY SWEETEST LESBIA
by: Caius Valerius Catullus (87-57 B.C.)
My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love,
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove,
Let us not weigh them. Heaven's great lamps do dive
Into their west, and straight again revive.
But, soon as once set is our little light,
Then must we sleep one ever-during night.
If all would lead their lives in love like me,
Then bloody swords and armor should not be;
No drum or trumpet peaceful sleeps should move,
Unless alarm came from the camp of Love:
But fools do live and waste their little light,
And seek with pain their ever-during night.
When timely death my life and fortune ends,
Let not my hearse be vext with mourning friends,
But let all lovers rich in triumph come
And with sweet pastimes grace my happy tomb:
And, Lesbia, close up thou my little light,
And crown with love my ever-during night