“Everybody is being trained, in every capacity. It’s the only way, if we’re going to survive.”
—Serina, “Lost Planet of the Gods”
“Lieutenant Starbuck, report to the repair bay.” Flight Corporal Rigel’s serene voice emerged from the nearest audio comm in the busy Officer’s Club. “Priority gamma. Lieutenant Starbuck to the repair bay.”
“Oh, for Sagan’s sake!” Starbuck set down the bottle he had just secured from the bartender.
Cassiopeia closed her eyes as she breathed out, but found a smile. She had been looking forward to this off-shift all secton. It had kept her going through the infections that had started with a random virus mutation among the primary-age children, and had then had to be chased down in every corner of the fleet. She was wrung out, and she wanted, just for a few centars, to belong only to herself and the man she loved, and he to himself and her. But such was life in the motley convoy of Colonial survivors, and Cassiopeia was never one to cry over spilled lakto.
“I spent the entire cycle down there already,” Starbuck continued. “Wilker’s team’s testing CORA 2.0 on me and my Viper. Scientists are harder to escape than Cylons.” Starbuck shook his head and quirked up one corner of his mouth. Cassiopeia’s beloved was always handsome, objectively, with his thick, sandy hair, athletic build and misleadingly open features, but when he grinned like that, he became — in her expert, if biased, opinion — downright adorable. He extended a hand to her. “I gotta admit, I was looking forward to playing on your sympathy for my stint as a lab rodent.”
“Cache my theoretical pity for next time.” Cassiopeia took his hand in both of hers and stood, letting him pull her in close. “It’s okay. A warrior’s schedule is never as settled as a med tech’s. I’ll exchange our private compartment reservation—”
“But I wanted this time.” Starbuck’s voice thrummed low and earnest, veiled by the buzz of other conversations.
Cassiopeia met his eyes. She accepted as a gift this rare, frank intensity, which few others would believe of the glib pilot. Apollo, certainly. Commander Adama, perhaps. Athena . . . no. Cassiopeia treasured these unvarnished reactions. She needed to be Starbuck’s choice, never his obligation. Starbuck ran his hands lightly up and down her arms, over the sleeves of the decorous, autumn-colored gown from her first clothing ration, which she had worn to Serina and Apollo’s wedding. Starbuck had been missing in action, then. His famous luck had brought him home at last, but, as if in trade, Serina had become yet another casualty of the Cylons’ endless war, and the first patient to die under Cassiopeia’s care. Tears gathered behind her eyes, grief and guilt and gratitude, all together.
“Lords, but you’re beautiful,” Starbuck breathed. “When we can’t sync up, I . . . I miss you.”
“I miss you, too.” She wrapped her arms around his waist.
The thick synthasuede and sturdy buckles of his uniform jacket held her away, even as he gathered her close. He bent down to rest his forehead against hers. “Cass, I—”
“Lieutenant Starbuck, this is your second call,” Rigel’s voice interrupted. “Report to the repair bay.”
“Go.” Cassiopeia poked his sternum.
“I’m going.” He appropriated a quick kiss and reached for the comm button. “On my way, Core Command.” He flourished a goodbye with the tips of his fingers as he loped toward the exit, taking the steps up from the lounge two at a time.
Cassiopeia sank back into her chair. She acknowledged, and then smoothed away, the bereft mood that had loomed with the change in plans, using the therapeutic skills of her first vocation on herself. Of course she could relax and recharge on her own. Even just closing her eyes early, snug in her own berth, offered comforts and compensations.
Her gaze fell on the bottle of ambrosa, and she wondered whether to return it to the bartender for public provisions, or stash it for private enjoyment. This luxury came out of Starbuck’s purse, not his rations. The Proteus refugees had been assigned vineyard space in one of the agro ships, and a null-gravity distillery pod was under construction, but Cassiopeia doubted that anything could bring supply in line with demand. Idly examining one of the glasses Starbuck had brought with the bottle, she wondered whether the people of Earth also drank ethanol for enjoyment, or whether they considered recreational toxins a primitive indulgence. They would be human, those Earthlings, but of how very much humans can differ, socialators and med techs alike received panoramic views.
“Um . . . may I join you?”
Cassiopeia started. Athena stood in the spot Starbuck had just left, cradling an ale mug. Starbuck’s old flame stood out like a sialia in the Borellian desert, the dress blues of upper-level Core Command against the browns and tans of other warriors, her family’s characteristic lush dark hair like plumage around her space-pale face. Cassiopeia spread her hands. “Of course.”
“I saw Starbuck run out.” Athena set down her mug. Then she sat, resting her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands. “You won that contest some time ago. I never admitted that, did I?”
Cassiopeia tilted her head. Athena always looked so young to her, though they belonged to the same generation. This cycle, the volatile second lieutenant looked adrift as well, a lost little girl playing dress-up in a parent’s uniform. This was no time to point out that Athena had pushed Starbuck away before he and Cassiopeia had even met. Nor that there had never been a contest anywhere but in Athena’s mind, where — in a case straight out of Cassiopeia's old textbooks — Athena’s imagined claim on Starbuck had allowed her to arrogate to herself his status as an ace Viper pilot of innumerable Cylon kills, a status she alone of her hyper-accomplished family lacked, as the only one besides her civilian mother to have graduated the Academy with a mere shuttle certification, or to have been assigned to administration rather than combat. But Athena had not asked for that analysis, nor any of the other kinds of therapy Cassiopeia had been trained to provide.
Gently, Cassiopeia asked, “What can I do for you, Athena?”
“I don’t know many civilians. I barely got to start knowing Serina before she . . . and Boxey doesn’t count. Even my physical-recreation shift is all warriors.” Athena crossed her arms, hunching her shoulders together. “You’re a civilian. May I ask you something?”
“How did you feel when the computer first assigned you to be a med tech?”
Cassiopeia blinked. Considered. Broke the seal on the ambrosa, silently promising to reimburse Starbuck the cubits it had cost him. She offered Athena an empty glass, which the warrior accepted despite her ale, and then Cassiopeia set out the other glass for herself. Playing host and letting the beverage breathe gave her space to gather her thoughts. Fellow patrons’ chatter and laughter seemed suddenly loud and rough. The frenzy of the evacuation, the terror that the rattletrap freighter Gemini would fall behind, the relief of winning a place on the Galactica, the desperation as physical subsistence crowded out cultural survival . . . “It seems like a lifetime ago.”
“Really?” Athena gulped her ale. “It seems like yesterday to me.”
“Of course the Annihilation of the Colonies — and the Battle of Cimtar,” Cassiopeia added, remembering that Athena’s brother Zac had been the first casualty of that fatal diversion, “are forever with us all.”
“No, I mean, things changed then, of course, but nothing has changed since, you know?”
“I’m afraid not.” Cassiopeia searched Athena’s expression and posture. She found anxiety compounding Athena’s usual impulsiveness, and isolation choking her characteristic confidence, but no clues to what had driven Athena to this conversation. “For me, it seems more as if the Annihilation started an avalanche of change that’s never stopped. Slowed, maybe? Lately? I suppose— sometimes, I imagine that the changes will end when we finally cross this wilderness and reach Earth.”
“Father believes that reaching Earth will signal a new start, that we go through the fire now to prepare, to be ready when we get there.”
“Ready for what?”
“Just ‘ready.’” Athena pushed her ale mug away and toyed with her empty ambrosa glass. “But your reassignment was really the first of those changes for you, right? How— how was it? What did you do when you heard?”
“Well, first, I checked with the duty officer to ensure that there hadn’t been a mistake.” Cassiopeia poured a splash of ambrosa into each glass. Her reassignment had been a bitter dose to swallow, then. That the occupation for which she had studied and trained, and which had been so venerable and respected on Gemoni, ranked as a dispensable luxury to whomever had programmed the Galactica’s personnel computer, rankled. Gemonese society expected complementarity; Caprican, linearity. The reassignment had felt alienating, discriminatory and misguided. Cultural survival mattered; Cassiopeia knew it in every gene of her body. “Second, I checked with his superior. Third, her superior. I checked all the way to my first shift at the Life Station.”
“I had more relevant education and experience than most assignees.” Cassiopeia wetted her lips with the ambrosa. It was pleasant, but just pleasant: not one of the Proteus vintages, then. “Doctor Salik’s and Doctor Paye’s teams had to expand to take care of the whole fleet. I didn’t turn my back on them.”
For some reason, medicine was one of the disciplines most statistically underrepresented among the survivors. Education was another. Cassiopeia privately suspected that more than a few healers and instructors, who might otherwise have reached rendezvous points, had been unwilling to abandon their charges, and so had fallen behind, perishing in the final, purging onslaught. Children were the group most missing and missed of all . . . and you rarely saw someone with a physical impediment. But those were things about which no one spoke.
“So after that, were you happy? ” Athena took one civilized sip of her ambrosa, then tossed back as much as one would of ale or grog. “Was the computer right about what you should be doing?”
“Right?” Memories of Gemoni woke and stretched, and reminded Cassiopeia why she had tucked them away. “Med techs were — are — more urgently needed than socialators. As a med tech, I help—” Serina’s face, among others, joined the Gemonese parade behind Cassiopeia’s eyes “—all I can. But ‘right’?”
“I mean, is med tech, you know, the job of your dreams?”
“My heart’s desire?” Cassiopeia laughed. “Med tech is a noble profession, but on my world, so was socialator.” Cassiopeia looked into Athena’s oddly naïve expression, and remembered that Athena had opened by observing that she did not know any civilians. Despite repeated reconstitutions of the Council of Twelve, the survivors had effectively lived under martial law since the Annihilation, dependent on the crew of the last battlestar to facilitate everything from accommodation queues to air quality; perhaps some precious distinctions had begun to fade. Cassiopeia bit her lip. “We’re all doing what’s needed to survive now, not just to survive, now, but so that we can get beyond survival again, someday. A secret kept is knowledge lost. Everyone must train, and cross-train, and record every remembered fragment, so that we won’t have to reinvent poetry or orchestration or anesthesiology or oceanography or pastry-baking — or socialation.”
“But I thought that was all taken care of, since Father opened the Rising Star recreation decks.”
Cassiopeia stared. The occasional musical concert, dance performance and theater presentation, plus regular Triad matches, restaurants and gaming, hardly encompassed all seven millennia and twelve home-worlds of human culture.
“Never mind.” Athena pressed her fingers to her temples. “I just— I guess I thought . . . hoped . . . that when the computer made assignments . . .”
Cassiopeia pushed aside the glass and patted Athena’s arm. “What did the computer say about your assignment, Athena?”
“We were auditing old transfers against the latest shortage slates. I found mine.” Athena picked up her mug. “Would you believe primary teacher? Someone—” she laughed without humor “—overrode it without telling me. I never knew. I never knew!”
Only two people could have ordered Athena’s posting overridden, Cassiopeia understood: her immediate superior, Colonel Tigh, and his immediate superior, Athena’s father, Commander Adama. Cassiopeia looked around the lounge; with true privacy so hard to come by, common courtesy across the fleet had evolved a pretense of hearing less than one did, but the Commander’s daughter might not qualify for that consideration, in some eyes. Adama’s family were celebrities. No wonder Athena didn’t know any civilians; what civilians could she trust?
“Not here.” Cassiopeia stood and picked up the ambrosa bottle. “Bring the glasses.”
“Where are we going?” Athena followed.
Cassiopeia caught Athena’s elbow when she stumbled a little on the stairs up from the lounge to the surrounding dais. Athena’s attempt to numb — or nerve — herself with ethanol seemed to be kicking in. Cassiopeia ushered Athena into the empty turbo-lift ahead of her, waiting for the door to slide shut before answering, “We’re going to a reserved cabin.”
“Reserved for you and Starbuck? Thanks, but I don’t want to talk to him.” Athena leaned against the back wall. “Him and Apollo, Father and Tigh. Everyone thinks they know what’s best for me. No one asks me.”
“Starbuck got called on duty; he won’t be there.”
“Oh. Good.” Athena looked down at the two glasses she carried, neither of them empty. “Do— did you have siblings, Cassiopeia?”
Cassiopeia shook her head. It had been just her and her father, and then just her, alone.
“Zac would have asked,” Athena said. “People always guess that Mother must have been the sympathetic one, but she was just like Apollo, sure that your character at age five is your character for life. Zac understood.”
The turbo-lift opened in an austere, white corridor. Having stopped by before to drop off a sleep-cycle bag, Cassiopeia knew the way, and helped Athena around the corner and down the passage. Like the corridor, the cabin was plain, but with softened light, and a bed, bedding, table and chairs, all surfaced in imitation plant fibers, the room became comfortable and inviting. Cassiopeia set the ambrosa bottle on the table, and filled both glasses halfway when Athena placed them beside it.
Cassiopeia raised her glass. “To being asked what you want?”
“To knowing you have a choice.” Athena touched her glass to its twin and took a sip.
“To be fair,” Cassiopeia said, sitting at the table after completing the toast, “no one else got a choice, either. The only difference is that a computer algorithm chose for the rest of us, while for you— Do you know which one overrode your assignment?”
“It had to have been Father.” Athena sat on the bed. “Colonel Tigh goes by the book, unless my father orders otherwise. Father likes to think that I would have commanded a battlestar someday, just like him . . . if there were still other battlestars.”
Cassiopeia raised her eyebrows. Surely Commander Adama could not be that oblivious. Then again, he would be far from the first parent to view his children through tinted lenses. “Do you want to command?”
Athena’s smile flashed out suddenly, for the first time that cycle. “I did when I was five!”
“I see.” Cassiopeia smiled back. “Do you want to teach?”
Athena looked down at her ambrosa. Finally, she nodded. “Until I saw it in the computer, I had never thought of it. Now, it’s all I can think about.” She looked up and cocked her head. “Now, I think that I should never have been assigned to Core Command in the first place, that I’ve been mismatched all along, pouring tylium into a solium tank — no wonder nothing ran right for me! This other life I might have led . . . Aren’t I too old for discoveries like this?”
“No one is ever too old to grow.”
“I don’t have the training. I don’t have the experience. We need the best people educating what children we have. What if I’m as mediocre in front of a classroom as I am at the controls of a Viper?”
“Not being an ace pilot doesn’t make you a mediocre one,” Cassiopeia murmured. The other worry rang true, though; even with her own nephew, Athena did not seem to have a feel for children. Perhaps, living so much of her life so deeply in the military, she just had not had many opportunities to interact with children. Cassiopeia wondered whether Boxey was the first child Athena had known since Zac grew up.
“Ace, commonplace, and dead: the three kinds of Viper pilots.” Athena stood and refilled her glass. “Plenty of former shuttle pilots were permanently assigned to fighter wings after the attack on Kobol; I wasn’t. I’m under no illusions.”
“Well, I’ve never heard that flying a Viper predicts any other skills. We can find you mentors. The computer has tutorials. And teaching is now an escalated priority occupation.” Cassiopeia pushed her glass away and folded her hands in her lap. “I think that the real question is, how are you going to tell your father and brother?”
“Oh, Lords, they are going to be so disappointed in me! I can’t. I just can’t.” Athena sat cross-legged on the floor and leaned back against the bed. Tears began running down her face; she didn’t seem to notice. “A civilian! Can you imagine? Walking away from my warrior’s oath, my family’s legacy, a thousand yahrens of the struggle for human liberty. They’ll tell me that leaving the service isn't just foolish, it’s selfish, that everyone is needed, and I’m putting myself ahead of my duty. They’ll be right.”
“Felgercarb!” Cassiopeia snapped. “First, every adult in this fleet serves!” She leaned forward. “Service is not the exclusive privilege of warriors, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. That was the whole point of those galmonging computer vocational reassignments in the first place! Second, if I know your brother at all, he’s going to be dismayed that your assignment got special treatment.”
Athena choked out a small laugh. “You’re right. He’ll be so disappointed in Father that he may forget to be disappointed in me.”
“Third,” Cassiopeia slipped to the floor, took the ambrosa glass away from Athena, and clasped her hands. “Your father and brother both love you dearly. They may be shocked at first, but becoming a civilian is hardly a sin they have to forgive. And don’t forget that they both married civilians — well, Serina was a shuttle pilot by her wedding, but you know what I mean. You can do this.”
“Can I?” Athena looked even younger than usual, her blue eyes wide and trusting.
“Yes.” Cassiopeia projected that getting out of her family’s business — her family’s shadow — would allow Athena to finally begin growing toward her own light, and recalled the boundless confidence with which, pointlessly, Athena had attempted to compete for Starbuck across two galaxies. Better directed, what might that zeal accomplish? “Yes, you can.”
Eventually, well and truly ethanol-poisoned, Athena fell asleep. Cassiopeia tucked her in, pretending for a moment that Athena was her little sister, too, in the complex web of genetic, adoptive and foster relationships that composed the fleet’s leading family. She and Athena had discussed ways to request a transfer from Tigh; and to notify Omega, her probable replacement in Core Command; as well as to face Apollo and Commander Adama. Cassiopeia suspected, however, that even if Athena remembered their discussion and tried to follow it, she would blurt out her intentions in the end. That was Athena: blunt and immediate, let the tokens fall where they may. It was Athena’s incarnation of her family’s awe-inspiring authenticity, Cassiopeia thought. She left her sleep-shift bag for Athena’s use, turned off the light and stepped out into the corridor.
As the compartment door slid shut behind her, Cassiopeia leaned against the wall of the passageway and closed her eyes, breathing deeply. She let herself feel her own fatigue, physical and emotional. She did not begrudge a centon, but this was definitely not something she could do every cycle anymore. Athena was not the only one growing into herself, so to speak.
Her eyes flew open. Starbuck had rounded the corner from the farthest bend in the passage. He carried his uniform jacket over one arm and waved with the other. Cassiopeia felt a smile bloom across her face and energy flow into her limbs in reply to his eager strides. She teased, “Has Doctor Wilker dispensed with your services as a lab rodent?”
“One of his, uh, minions pointed out that they’ve got enough scans now to sequence a Starbuck simulation. Wilker shook my hand, clapped me on the shoulder and steered me into the nearest turbo-lift.”
“I’m glad.” When he waggled his eyebrows, she clarified, “No, not just to have you back, egotist, though that, too. I mean, Doctor Wilker’s projects can be a little, well,” Cassiopeia hesitated, “creepy? I don’t mean to be prejudiced. We need expertise in robotics and cybernetics! But—”
“Yeah, I know. Muffit is no Cylon, but—” Starbuck took Cassiopeia’s extended hand and let her tow him into her personal space. “Me, I go for humans. Soft, warm, sweet, spicy. . .”
“You sound hungry.” She ran her hands up his smooth, quilted uniform shirt, without the bulky jacket and its buckles in her way.
“Only for you. Yes, yes, you’ve heard that one before.” He kissed the tip of her nose and turned aside to gesture at the closed cabin door. “I’m very, very late. Am I too late?”
Cassiopeia tugged him back. “I gave it to Athena.”
Starbuck’s jaw dropped.
“The compartment and the ambrosa both. She needed them more than you or I did.”
“I think . . . I won’t ask.” Starbuck looked into Cassiopeia’s eyes and stroked her hair away from her face. After a moment, his fingers found the stress-tight knots at the back of her neck and began to soothe them loose. “Sometimes, Cass, you’re too generous for your own good. And I don’t mean the room or the bottle.”
“We could always try a launch tube again,” Cassiopeia kidded, shrugging away his mixed praise. “She’s nowhere near the steam controls this time.”
“Some gambles, even I don’t take.” Starbuck rolled his eyes. Athena’s sabotage of Cassiopeia and Starbuck’s first amorous attempt had proven unforgettable, though not unforgivable.
“I’m as sorry as you are to lose the room, but we can curl up in my bunk for a few centars’ sleep, anyway. The other women in my cluster won’t mind.”
He slid his hands down to her waist. “You know, uh, if we got, well, sealed, we’d have escalated priority for private quarters.”
“Why, Starbuck! Is that a proposal?”
He swallowed. “Call it a fantasy.”
“I like this fantasy.” She reached up to stroke the line of his jaw. “I like it a lot. Maybe we—”
“Lieutenant Starbuck, report to Core Command.” Sergeant Omega’s solid voice emerged from the nearest audio comm. “Priority beta. Lieutenant Starbuck to Core Command.”
Laughing, Cassiopeia helped Starbuck don his uniform jacket. Such was life — and she was indeed glad of theirs.
— End —