Section Seven : Gainful Employment

 

7.1 Happy Birthday

 

It just wasn't usual for so many warriors from virtually every branch of the services to be on the same small, insignificant planet, but here they were: Fleet, MI and the Frontier Guard. No-one really knew why they were there, either. The planet had no natural resources worthy of the name and sat far enough off in neutral territory that it couldn't possibly threaten any of the trade routes; but for some reason, Them Upstairs had decreed that the Cylons must not be allowed to take it.

The Cylons apparently wanted Draco-Epsilon-9, the Colonial Government was determined that the Cylons weren't going to get it. So there the warriors were.

"Not even an election yahren," observed Fee, dismissing one cynical reason for their presence.

The problem was that the planet's rather insectoidal inhabitants hadn't been asked if they wanted to be protected from the Cylon menace and showed an inexplicable distaste for the Colonials' presence on their home-world. Indeed, despite the fact that the arrival of the Colonial liberation force seemed to have given the Cylons pause for thought, the inhabitants appeared to consider it more of a Colonial occupation force and reacted accordingly. And since they knew Draco-Epsilon-9—more familiarly known as Bloody Drack, with a twist of pronunciation that left most warriors indifferent to the linguistic purists who complained—well, since the Dracks knew their homeworld rather better than their liberators, they mounted an effective and elusive campaign from its dense jungles. Their equipment was nowhere near as technologically advanced as the Colonials', but it didn't appear to get in the way of them waging the campaign with admirable efficiency.

Downright ingratitude, in Samn's opinion.

But if there were any Cylon attack forces in the offing, that's where they stayed. The threatened invasion hadn't happened, so maybe that was a military objective attained. But if anyone was winning, it was probably the Dracks.

 

 

New lieutenants were always a pain in the arse.

This one had been fresh out of the Academy that summer, so insecure that he could stand as a living definition to the term; jumpy, keen to do well in the captain's eyes, and so convinced of the superiority of his four yahrens in the Academy being trained in the theory of how to be an officer, that he constantly discounted the advice of the sergeant who had spent those same four yahrens at war getting some very practical training in keeping himself and his unit alive.

"There is a good reason why most of our lot come up through the ranks," said Corporal Samn when the sergeant, rebuffed yet again, returned to join the unit's squad leaders under the trees. "That one wouldn't know which way was up if you tattooed the arrow on his backside."

Fee grunted, easing the straps of the heavy pack on his shoulders. It was difficult making the adjustment after Lieutenant Artur had died and they'd had Hanson gifted to them as a replacement. Artur had been a more traditional Guard officer – enlisted at twenty and come up the hard way. He may not have had a glittering four yahrens at the Academy, but he had known what he was doing. They'd trusted Artur. Hanson, though, was still learning, and wasn't adjusting well to the realisation that all the glitter in the world meant one big fat zero when the battle started.

They'd only been on Bloody Drack for three days, and it was already turning out to be a nightmare. By rights they should have been on back on Caprica, one six-secton–long job near Oxford base already successfully completed, but they'd been pulled into this mess instead. None of them relished the diversion. They were tired and tempers were short. Fee wasn't being as patient with Hanson as he ought to be, and he knew it.

"We're stuck with him," he said, briefly. He'd said it often over the sectars since the lieutenant had joined them in late Sextus. "We make the best of it."

"If he doesn't get us all killed," said another corporal.

Fee shrugged to re-settle the weight of the pack. "I think it's my job to stop that, Dex. And you lot make sure you don't diss him in front of the rest."

"We don't need to," said Samn. "They're smart enough to see for themselves." He hitched up his own pack and took hold of his laser rifle, hefting it in one large hand. "He's bad news, Fee."

Fee turned his head to watch the lieutenant. They had to be about the same age in yahrens, centuries apart in experience. Lieutenant Hanson was completely out of his depth. A few metres further on he could see the calm, seemingly untroubled face of Captain Mavinne. Her eyes met his and she smiled briefly before turning away and calling her lieutenants together.

"Yeah," said Fee, slowly. "But I don't think we're the only ones to think that."

"Not that they'll do anything," grunted Samn, but held his peace as Hanson came up and ordered them out.

"There's an energy source and some sort of complex ten klicks to the north-west," said Hanson. "We're going to take a look."

Samn raised an expressive eyebrow at Fee and took his place with his own squad, just to Fee's right, as they spread out and advanced.

Fee stuck by Hanson, as he was supposed to, grateful that he had Samn close at hand. His Triad partner was the most senior member of the unit, a twenty yahren veteran, and although he was almost twice Fee's age – And three times my width, Fee had been known to say, admiringly, when Samn blocked their opponents on the court, although Samn maintained (accurately) that he was merely burly and thick-set and Fee was too damned skinny – he was probably the fittest, most dangerous Warrior on the Guard ship Whistlejacket. Fee could never work out why he'd got the sergeant's post and rank when their old sergeant moved to a different unit, and not Samn. Samn denied he was sergeant material. He was quite happy as a corporal, he said, and didn't need the extra hassle. Fee still relied on Samn's advice and support.

Samn was also a damned good friend. For some reason, he'd taken to Fee and looked after him since the day Fee had been posted to the Whistlejacket. Fee referred to Samn once as a wet-nurse, a description that Samn had felt compelled to take out of him in Triad practice. But Samn had delivered the chastisement with perfect good humour and a lack of resentment that Fee had rather appreciated.

Then Fee's ruminations were very rudely interrupted.

The explosion was shockingly loud and close.

Fee wasn't above throwing himself down when the shell exploded about a hundred metres away, taking the lieutenant down with him. He was showered with dirt and bits of splintered vegetation, grateful that it was only pebbles and nothing bigger bouncing off his back.

Fee rolled clear of Hanson immediately and took shelter behind a tree, checking the unit, snapping orders at the eight corporals. "Headcount!"

His helmet carried extra gear, a small but effective sensor that allowed him to monitor the tracking signaller in every warrior's helmet. It all looked okay. The corporals confirmed it immediately. Each little squad of four warriors and corporal were unhurt.

"Keep their heads down," ordered Fee, and nodded to Hanson. "No casualties, sir."

Samn scuttled over, to check that Fee was all right.

"Shit!" he said, shaking dirt off his plasma rifle. "Look, I'm not one to complain, Sarge, but the Guard is not Infantry. We're supposed to do fast scouting runs in and out of enemy territory, not sit here and get shot at like mudbrains."

"Someone changed the job description, Samn. Get over it."

The lieutenant swallowed hard. He was shaking slightly, Fee noticed. "That didn't sound like a laser cannon."

Fee blinked, surprised that Hanson was prepared to admit to any sort of ignorance. "No, sir. It's a small field gun, using old-fashioned high explosive shells. The briefing said that's all the Dracks have, you remember."

"I've never come across one."

"No sir," said Fee. Hanson wouldn't have, not sitting safe in the Academy for the last four yahrens. He stifled the uncharitable thought, and said, in a more conciliatory tone, "They're not very common."

Lieutenant Hanson nodded. "A bit unsophisticated," he said, evidently taking comfort from the fact.

But kills you just as dead as a laser cannon. Fee didn't say it aloud. It wasn't worth it. Another shell whistled overhead and smashed into the jungle at the other side of their tiny clearing. Even though it landed further away than the first shell, the ground still shook.

"How far do you think it is, sergeant?"

Fee glanced at Samn, who shrugged. "Got to be a three or four thousand metres."

"Easy," agreed Samn. "Maybe more. Those things have a reasonable range."

"The complex you mentioned, sir, I'd say. The briefing officer mentioned the Dracks have some form of sonar technology. We must be tripping their sensors, somehow. We could do with some air support.”

But air support was unavailable, and Fee knew it. While the Dracks excelled at guerrilla warfare, they did pretty well in conventional terms as well. The Colonial Infantry force was a couple of hundred miles to the south, trying to liberate the Drack capital. The Dracks were not inclined to open up the gates and start strewing rose petals, and every Fleet Viper and Guard Raptor was in the air already, supporting that little offensive. The Guards had been called in to scout for targets behind enemy lines to weaken the Drack resistance.

Captain Mavinne wormed her way across to them. “This is useless, Han. We can't afford to be tied down here." Her calm, up-tilted almond-shaped eyes met Fee's. "You and Corporal Samn, sergeant. Try sneaking up on them and getting that gun.”

"Ma'am," said Fee. His heart jumped. He took his hand off the stock of his laser rifle, and wiped it carefully on his pants leg before shrugging out of his pack. He blew out a sharp breath, and met Samn's sardonic gaze.

"I'll go, Ma'am," said Lieutenant Hanson, quickly.

Fee hoped the wince didn't show. He didn't think Hanson was quite up to it yet. Luckily, apparently, neither did Mavinne.

"I need you here, Lieutenant." The captain ducked – they all did - as a third shell roared overhead. "They're finding their range. You two had better hurry."

"Why us?" asked Samn, already free of his pack and rummaging in it for supplies.

"Corporal!" hissed Hanson, outraged.

Mavinne held up a hand to stop him. "I was at the games this summer and I'm a sore loser," she said. "I had a secton's pay on your opponents."

"They're in Third regiment!" said Samn, scandalised.

"So?"

"Told you we should have thrown the finals," said Fee to Samn. He twisted to catch Corporal Dex's eye and beckoned him forward. Dex was next in seniority to Samn.

"That was sectons ago," protested Samn. He unpacked a phenomenal amount of explosive from his pack and began bestowing it about his substantial person. "You're about to sacrifice the best Triad team this regiment's ever seen, you know, Ma'am."

"I take my time getting even and I have every faith in you both," said Mavinne, blandly. She waited until Fee had disengaged the tracking sensors and handed the sensor pack over to Dex. "Good luck."

"Thanks, Ma'am. We'll signal when we can. I don't suppose we can get some air support?" Fee checked the comm-link in his helmet, and stuffed extra power packs for his laser into his belt packs.

“I asked," said Mavinne. "But the airheads are busy somewhere else and our own Raptors are in action down south.”

"Oh well, we get to run then." Samn took it with equanimity.

“You need the exercise," said Fee. He took a small scanner from his pocket and glanced at it, homing in on the complex Hanson had mentioned. "Nearly five klicks."

"Take it all out," said Mavinne.

"Yes Ma'am." Fee saluted as best he could in the circumstances and headed out, a chorus of Good luck! sending them on their way.

"Why is it always us?" asked Samn, following Fee around the nice comforting bulk of the tree they'd been hiding behind and into the jungle beyond.

"You heard. She had her money on the opposition."

"I wish I'd stayed in bed this morning.”

"What do you have to beef about?" asked Fee. "I think I'm the one being short changed here."

Samn grinned. "Oh yeah. I forgot. Happy birthday."

Fee grinned, and started the cautious advance, moving from tree to tree with Samn never more than a few feet away from him. "Don't you have a present for me?"

Samn slapped at one pocket after another, looking puzzled. "Oops?"

Fee shrugged and ran on.

"What are you planning?” asked Samn after a few centons.

“Planning? Who has time to do any planning? I'll think of something by the time we get there."

"Not that it'll do us a lot of good," said Samn, flitting from one tree to another with all the light footed speed that always surprised their opponents in the Triad court. "Them Upstairs have had to call us in to save their arses from being comprehensively kicked on this shit hole, and being kicked by a bunch of bugs that can barely rub two sticks together to make fire. It's only a matter of time before we all run for home with our tails between our legs."

"I'd say so, yes," agreed Fee. "The Dracks are not pleased we're here. Can't say I blame them."

"You'll change your tune if they hit anything with that popgun of theirs."

"I know. But I was thinking that if they're like bugs at home, that may make the way they think closer to the Cylons than to us. They may not mind it if the tinheads come."

Samn grunted, and for the next few centons they ran in silence.

Fee stopped and held up a hand. "Wait a centon – "

A firefight makes an unmistakable noise. There was the almost subliminal whine of lasers, the louder popping sound made by the Dracks' solid-projectile pistols, shouts and screams, a couple of small explosions. The big gun, which had been firing only sporadically, stopped altogether.

"Some of ours?"

"Don't think it can be," said Fee. "None of our lot are anywhere near here. The closest is Captain Teague's unit, and he must be a good thirty kilometres east of us."

"Unless he's lost."

"Samn, I know that every other Guard unit is inferior to us in every possible way, but they don't get that lost. Hold on, while I report in." Fee switched on the comlink and reported back quickly. He listened to Hanson's orders, trying to ignore Samn's grinning. "Yes sir. Of course, sir. And no, sir, I won't report back again without more data." Fee shut down the communicator.

"He doesn't like you," said Samn.

"No."

"It's probably not personal, Fee. He's new, and he doesn't like it when the captain keeps telling him to listen to your advice. So far as he's concerned, why spend four yahrens in the Academy if when you get your command, you're perpetually told you don't know as much as your sergeant? And, you know, you don't always make allowances for how green he is."

"Why should I? He's our officer."

"You do for every other recruit until they get blooded in battle. We did for you." Samn grinned at the look Fee gave him. "It can't be easy when you're the same age, I guess. A bit of competition creeps in."

Fee shrugged. It wasn't competition, not exactly. It was that Hanson had had the four yahrens that Apollo would have had, that Apollo knew were his as a matter of course, that Athena now had; the four yahrens that could never be Fee's.

"He's jealous of you, I'd say, and not sure of himself," said Samn. "Maybe you should take him flowers, or something, to make up for it."

"Something."

Samn grimaced slightly and gave it up. "Orders are to go and take a look?"

Fee nodded, and putting thoughts of the dickhead of a lieutenant behind him, he and Samn moved on. The firefight had died away, but they weren't in any hurry now, moving slowly and cautiously through the trees towards the gun emplacement. When Fee checked the scanner again, he tilted the screen towards Samn, not speaking.

Cylons.

Samn moved closer and said, very quietly. "And where the hell did they come from?"

"Slipped past our friends in Fleet, maybe, or they're an advance party and they've always been here. How the hell should I know?"

"Maybe we should go and ask them."

Fee hesitated and raised a hand to drop the mouthpiece of the com unit into place. He didn't switch the unit on, remembering the lieutenant's less than welcoming attitude. He shrugged. "Well, the man did say not to report back until I had something to say. Let's go gather him some information."

Five centons later and they were sheltering behind yet another tree, looking at a small blockhouse in the middle of a clearing, a few flimsier buildings around it. The gun emplacement was a hundred metres away near the tree-line at the other side of the clearing. Four centurions patrolled the near side of the clearing, marching indifferently past a pile of Drack corpses.

"This is a bit more permanent than I was expecting," Fee said quietly, indicating the blockhouse. "We may have found a Drack command base. No wonder they were shooting at us."

"The tinheads found it first."

"They aren't going to keep it." Fee put the scanner between them so they could both see it, checking the readings. "There's two inside the blockhouse, four here. "That means the other four are on the other side of the clearing, near the gun emplacement."

Samn looked sour. "I can count, you know."

"I can't see them from here with the blockhouse in the way." Fee stared at the scanner, willing it to tell him what he should do.

Samn, though, was looking to him in that capacity. "So, what are we going to do? Call up the company?"

"No," said Fee, after a centon. "That many people moving will trip the sensors. The Cylons will be able to use the gun as well as the Dracks. I think you and me get to take the tinheads out and then yell for the captain."

Samn handed him half a dozen primed grenades. "That's a shit plan, Fee."

"They don't show any sign at all of knowing we're here. They're not expecting us, and you know how slow their reactions can be. We could do a lot of damage before they notice us."

"Yeah, and they can do a lot of damage when they do wake up and find us shooting at them. Can't you think of anything better?"

"No." Fee attached the grenades carefully to his belt. "You work your way round to the other side, Samn. When you're in position, signal me and cut down the ones on that side when I tell you. Then take out the gun emplacement."

The sour look deepened. "And what will you be doing?"

"I'll get this lot on this side and then run over and get into the blockhouse—"

"That's a bit unfair. I only get to hit four and you take on six?"

"Selfish of me," conceded Fee. "I'm letting you have the gun emplacement to play with. That must equal at least four tinheads."

Samn sniffed.

Fee grinned. "So, I'll get this lot and run for the blockhouse while you get the emplacement. Nice simple little battle plan. Even you can't get it wrong this time."

"Just don't get killed on your birthday," said Samn stuffing his pockets with grenades and fixing his spare laser to his belt. "I'll be pissed off if I have to train up a new Triad partner."

"I'd be pretty upset myself. Let's go The sooner we get that gun, the sooner the captain can join the party." Fee activated the com unit. "Switch to battle frequency."

Samn nodded and complied. "Be careful," he said gruffly, dropped a hand on Fee's shoulder for a centon then disappeared into the brush.

Fee waited until he was out of sight before allowing the wince to show, massaging his shoulder to get the sting out of it. Samn in affectionate mode could sometimes be more pain than pleasure. Sheltering behind a tree and keeping low, he watched the activity on the other side of the clearing. For several centons nothing much happened, then Samn's voice sounded in his helmet comlink.

"Ready."

"Fine." Fee got to his feet slowly and carefully, still keeping the tree between him and the four Cylons standing sentry in front of the blockhouse. He took a deep breath. "Go now."

Almost before he finished there was a series of explosions and the unmistakable sound of a plasma rifle on the far side of the clearing. The four Cylons in front of him froze for an instant as they processed the data they were getting and turned, slowly, towards the noise. Fee took his chance. He lobbed four grenades into the clearing and took off across it almost before they had the chance to hit the ground and explode. He fired at the Cylons as he went. One went down in the grenade explosions, disassembled, and a second was disabled. The remaining two he got with his plasma rifle. Fee ignored them and continued his mad run up to the blockhouse, yelling at Samn through the comlink.

"I've got them. Get round here!"

There was a sudden and shocking explosion as the gun emplacement went up in a roar of orange flame, heat and stupendous noise.

"On my way!" Samn yelled over the noise. "Don't shoot me by mistake!"

"Stay back until I yell for you and watch my back!"

Fee raced up to the blockhouse, adrenaline firing him until he felt like he was on stims. His heart raced until he could feel it pounding in his ears, making him want to laugh with excitement. He tossed aside his plasma rifle before he reached the blockhouse door, drawing his hand laser. He put a blast from the laser into the door lock and kicked the door open, going through it in a smooth rolling dive and landed on his stomach, firing into the interior almost on instinct. The answering fire went harmlessly over his head. A Cylon centurion went down in a shower of sparks but the second... For a split micron Fee stared at the unexpected gold coloured Cylon--Hell! A Gold Commander!--then the adrenaline kicked in and he fired. The Gold Commander staggered back, and collapsed.

"Samn!"

The corporal was there suspiciously fast. It was obvious Samn hadn't stayed too far back. His prompt arrival earned him a knowing grin.

"Didn't I tell you to stay back?"

"I was back," protested Samn. "Just not very far back. Any more?"

It was a single room, nowhere for more Cylons to be lurking. Samn put out one hand and hauled Fee upright.

"That's the lot, I think," said Fee.

The gold Cylon lay on its back on the floor, arms and legs twitching, the big head moving from side to side. Fee studied it for a micron, then reached down to press an area on its neck. It was like throwing a switch. The thing went very still.

"Oops. Did you mean to do that?"

Fee stared at him, steadily.

Samn hunched a shoulder and grinned. "Have you killed it?"

" 'Course not. The captain would skin me alive. I closed it down. Remember basic training and how they told us to disable a Cylon if we needed to?"

"Don't be daft," said Samn. "The only reason I've lived this long is because I've made it my life's work never to get this bloody close to one of the bastards without blowing it to hell first. I didn't take notes about disabling one just on the off chance I might have a change of heart."

Fee grinned, feeling the sudden shakiness of arms and legs as the adrenaline seeped away. He drew a shaky breath. "Let's give the glad tidings to the lieutenant," he said. He spoke quickly into his helmet mike. “All clear, sir. Will you tell the captain that we found Cylons. Yes, sir. Yes sir, I am serious. Cylons. Corporal Samn and I cleaned up a dozen of them and got the gun. And please tell the captain I've got a present for her." Fee listened to Hanson's spluttering for a micron, smirking. He couldn't have sounded more smug if he'd practiced for a sectar and it had felt damned good dissing that bonehead Hanson without one disrespectful word. He almost stiffened into a salute when Mavinne broke into the report. "Afternoon, Ma'am. Did you get that about Cylons? So far as I can tell, an advance unit of some kind. No, not all of them, Ma'am. I've got you a live Gold commander, Ma'am." He listened for a centon, grinning at Samn. "Yes, Ma'am. I mean it. Live and kicking. You could almost call it a birthday present."

"Next thing, you'll be wanting me to put a ribbon on it," said Samn. "Just don't suggest where."

 

7.2 Taking the King's Shilling

Samn glanced at the scattered Cylons and Cylon body parts. He jogged around the clearing, checking the Cylons were no longer a threat, and ended up with the still feebly moving centurion, disabled by one of Fee's grenades.

"Not bad," he said, waving a hand at the devastation.

"Me, I put it down to your excellent training, Samn," said Fee brightly from where he was – gingerly – inspecting the dead Dracks. "I owe it all to you."

"Too bloody right you do. I remember when you were as green as the lieutenant."

"I never was!"

"Worse," said Samn. "Why the hell do you think I took you down to the gym and kicked the shit out of you?"

"Dunno. I thought that was supposed to be unarmed combat lessons?"

"And just when do you expect to go up unarmed against a Cylon?"

Samn had a point, if Fee resolutely forgot the day's events. But then, he hadn't been unarmed, exactly, as the pile of Cylon spare parts bore witness.

"Oh. Yeah." Fee gave it up. "There's hope for him yet, then."

"Some." Samn bent over the centurion. "You know, Fee, you're mad not to go career. I can guarantee that the micron you do, the captain will have you doing your officer training at the Academy."

"Then you'd have to salute me and call me 'Sir'. That would be nice, getting some respect around here."

"There's a down side to every thing." Samn nudged at the Cylon with one foot.

"Is it dead?"

"Not yet. It won't be going anywhere."

If it lived long enough, the Psychs would come to interrogate it – not that they ever got much out of centurions. The things were virtually mindless as individuals. The Gold one though, that was a different proposition. They were reputed to have a great deal more sentience. The Psychs would like that.

Even as Samn bent over it, the centurion stopped moving. "It's going nowhere at all. Just bought it, I think."

He rejoined Fee at the blockhouse door, picking up the abandoned laser rifle on the way. "You're getting careless with the military hardware."

"We might need it. It'll be a few centons before the captain arrives. If there are more tinheads around and they realise we've got that Gold one back there, they'll counter-attack. We'll have to hold this place if they start on us before the company gets here."

"We'll hold as long as it takes."

"Comforting."

"I can afford to be. You said that there's nothing showing on the scanner that might worry me."

"There is that," conceded Fee. He watched Samn for a centon, letting himself calm down completely. "Samn? That's about the tenth time you've told me to go career. Do they pay you extra to be a recruiting sergeant in disguise?"

"Well, yeah." Samn propped his rifle up against the wall and held out his hand for the scanner. Fee handed it over. "It's one of my jobs. There's one like me in every company, Fee. I've been in twenty yahrens and I know what I'm looking for. You know that most of our officers come up through the ranks. It's part of my job to spot the ones we think will make it and make sure they get every chance. I've pushed you as far as I can while you stay enlisted. You go career, and I promise you'll be at the Academy next autumn."

Fee stared at him. Samn looked up from the scanner.

"Check the pay lists one day. I'm paid top-sergeant rates."

"Oh," said Fee, who'd not meant it seriously.

Samn left him alone for a few centons, concentrating on the scanner. "Definitely nothing showing but our mob," he said eventually. "They're taking their time. What'd you think the lieutenant would say if we told him to run faster?"

Grateful for the change of tack, Fee grinned. "There are not enough flowers in this jungle to get us out of that one."

"Point." Samn took a sip from his water bottle and tossed the bottle across to Fee. "Do I get a medal out of this?" he asked.

"Dunno. With the lieutenant having to do the recommendation?" The water was warm, but Fee took some gratefully.

"It might impress Gilly no end," said Samn.

Gilly was a relatively new recruit; tiny, blonde, pretty, delicate looking, and capable of snapping the legs off any man that offended her. Samn had been mooning about her for sectons without conspicuous success.

"Then you'll get one if I have to hammer it out myself with my bare hands," promised Fee. "You need all the help you can get when it comes to girls."

"Look who's talking!"

Fee laughed. "Yeah. But I don't like girls."

Samn shook his head. "You'd better not say that in front of the lieutenant. That man's aching for something to get you on. Conduct unbecoming could do it."

"Last time I looked, it wasn't a crime. Shit, it's hot. I'm going back inside."

Samn grunted and agreed. They retreated into the blockhouse to get out of the sun and because it was the most defensible spot in the clearing. Besides, as Fee said, he wasn't sure how long the Gold Centurion would stay disabled and they'd better be on hand to tap it on the head again should it decide to get up and join the party. He spent a few centons examining it more closely, remembering basic training and the lectures they'd been given on handling captured Cylons; lectures that had been, as he recalled, based on very limited experience. It wasn't often anyone captured a Cylon.

He was glad though, that they didn't have to test the defensive capabilities of the blockhouse. It wasn't really that long before Samn spotted the first of the company ghosting quietly into the clearing.

"They're here," he said.

Captain Mavinne was at the front, a sulky-looking Hanson on one side, Lieutenant Ella of Alpha unit on the other. Fee and Samn came out to meet her and stiffened into perfect, parade ground salutes. She nodded at them.

"At ease, gentlemen." She glanced around the clearing. "Interdict," she ordered quietly, and watched for a centon as the officers shouted their orders and the Guards secured the clearing.

Hanson was sent round to check that the interdict was tight and report back. "All secure," he said. "Sensors out. No activity."

Mavinne nodded, and looked admiringly at the destroyed emplacement behind the blockhouse. Its roof was gone and one gun barrel, twisted in the explosion, pointed up at the sky. The other had been tossed clear across to the tree-line "You made a hell of a mess of the emplacement, Sergeant," she said.

"Nothing to do with me, Ma'am. That was Corporal Samn's good deed for the day."

Mavinne nodded at Samn. "Well done, Corporal. How many Cylons did the pair of you get?"

"Ten, Captain."

"Ten. I don't suppose you thought of saving any for us?"

"They were kind of pushy, Ma'am," said Samn, earnestly. "Sorta impatient. We didn't think they'd wait."

Mavinne laughed. "Any excuse. Ella, see if you can find the Drack ammo store and blow it."

"Consider it done." The lieutenant saluted and ran, calling to her own squad as she went.

The rest of Hanson's unit joined them. Dex handed over Fee's command gear with a grin of relief.

"Good to see you, Sarge. Here you go."

"The gold one?" asked Mavinne.

"In here, Ma'am." Fee, so aware of Hanson's dislike that he could almost feel the glare, led the way back into the blockhouse. He noticed that Samn followed them and took up position at the door, keeping the rest away from "his" Cylon.

"Did you kill it?" asked Hanson, poking at the silent Gold Commander.

Fee stiffened at the tone, but kept the resentment out of his voice. "No, sir. I was careful." Fee moved slightly to let the captain in. "I think it will be all right, Ma'am."

Her hand dropped onto his shoulder and her voice was warm. "Well done. The pair of you will be getting so many medals out of this that you'll be clanking like an iron works."

Fee twisted his head and grinned up at Samn. That would impress Gilly, he hoped. He didn't think it would impress Alex, much. But then, he didn't need to impress Alex.

"We've alerted Command," said Mavinne. "They're very excited about the thought that the Cylons are here, but they tend to think it's an advance scout unit. All the same, you have everyone jumping back at HQ."

"Changes things a bit," said Samn.

Mavinne laughed. "And that, Corporal, is a masterly understatement! They want this thing, fast, and a transport is on its way. We'd better get on with securing this site and think about our next target. Thank you, Sergeant. You and Samn stay in here and keep it company until the transport gets here. Make sure it doesn't wake up. Take five. You've earned it."

Fee sat back on his heels. Hanson gave him a cold look and followed Mavinne outside.

"That's improved your popularity no end," observed Samn.

"You know," said Fee. "I don't think he's going to give me a birthday present."

"You ain't getting one from me, either," said Samn. He settle himself down against the wall and, like the true soldier he was, closed his eyes and took advantage of the unexpected opportunity for a nap.

Fee grinned and sat back, content just to take the time out without having to run or shoot or fight or do anything but look idly at his "prisoner" and wonder what they'd do to it when they got it back to HQ.

He didn't have that long to wonder. The General in charge of the Colonial forces on Bloody Drack got very excited about the Gold Commander. He didn't come for it personally—they were, Fee surmised, far too far behind the enemy lines for the man to risk his gold braid—but the air support that had been too busy to come up and bomb Dracks on their behalf found itself able to spare a heavily armed shuttle and Viper escort, and two Psychs. The collection crew arrived within the centar, acting like Yule had come early.

"Just as I getting fond of it, as well," said Samn as the shuttle lifted off. "It was a nice little pet to have around. No noise, no trouble, house trained. I'll miss it."

"I think you two gentlemen have idled long enough," said Hanson, curtly, from behind them. "Back to work."

"Of course, sir," said Fee, and waited.

"Well?" demanded Hanson.

"I'm waiting on orders, sir," said Fee, gently.

Hanson's expression darkened, but Samn was faster. Mavinne was passing, and he put out a hand to stop her.

"I should tell you, Ma'am, that it's mission accomplished with this one," said Samn, nodding towards Fee "He's hooked."

"Oh?" Mavinne's smile was genuine. "Going to go career, Sergeant?"

Fee felt his face grow hot. "I've been thinking about it, Ma'am."

"Good," she said. "Think about it seriously, Fee." It was the first time she'd used his given name. It said, more than anything else, that she would welcome him. "When you've made the right decision, come and see me. I'll have your Academy papers ready."

"Told you," said Samn.

Fee caught a glimpse of Hanson's face. It would be worth it just to show the little snitrod how it was done. He looked away, a little ashamed of himself for being so petty. He wanted it because he knew it was right for him, not just to piss off the lieutenant.

"I'm pretty sure, Ma'am."

Hanson looked like someone was pulling his teeth. Fee smiled as he watched the man squirm. He hadn't expected that going career would have such very immediate and satisfying consequences.

 

 

Of course Hanson wasn't going to let it rest, there. He couldn't. The unit had late guard duty that night, and he waited until the early centars of the morning, when Fee, having done his second round of the pickets, bent down over the lieutenant's sleeping bag to make his report.

"All serene," said Fee, quietly, not to wake the others sleeping there.

Hanson rolled over onto his back, the glint of his eyes all that Fee could see in the darkness.

"You won't be getting my recommendation," said Hanson, abruptly. "You're probably not a bad non-com, but you'd have no idea about being an officer."

There were times when Fee remembered what it was like to be rich, and privileged, and educated. There were times when he remembered that he could trace his family back forty generations of Fleet officers; more, Adama always said, claiming ancestry to the time when Fleet ships had sails and even then they'd been on the command deck, not in the rigging or manning the oars.

There were even times when Fee almost remembered what it was like to be Apollo and how Apollo would react. Apollo could, and would, handle Hanson at least as an equal although it was doubtful that Apollo would consider Hanson in terms of equality. What was the man's family, after all? There would be none of the respectful sergeant in Apollo's patrician tones; there would be a lot of the inherited assurance that came from who he was and what he was, and where he fitted at damned near the top of the privileged society he'd been born into. Even at fourteen, Apollo had had all of that.

Apollo wouldn't worry about what Hanson thought. Apollo wouldn't be concerned about going to the Academy; it was where he was meant to go, after all, and Apollo had known that all his life. Apollo would have the confidence to carry off being enlisted and going to the Academy for only the final yahren, which was all that enlisted who went for officer training got, because Apollo would know that was all he needed to be the officer he was born to be, that his genetics made him, that Adama expected him to be; and Apollo would know that his yahrens of real soldiering were worth twice, three times, the same amount of time at the Academy learning the theory.

So when Apollo woke from his long, long sleep and surfaced from the deep places where he'd been hiding for yahrens, Fee retreated and let him through.

Apollo's tone was coldly patrician, coldly patronising, coldly uncompromising in its assurance. "My family's been commanding Battlestars for generations. I doubt that you can say the same for yours. I think I'll manage."

He was walking away before Hanson spoke again, recovering from his surprise. "You won't get the chance!"

Apollo shrugged and walked on towards his own bedroll. Once there, he slid away again, sinking back down to the deep, safe places. But he knew the way back now, and Apollo's sleep, Fee suspected, was light and easily disturbed.

 

 

The landing area—more correctly described as the disembarkation area at this stage in its short and inglorious history—had been carefully chosen. It stood on the edge of a plateau, its back defended by the sheer cliffs behind, a hastily thrown up wall protecting it against whatever lurked in the jungle To one side were the transports, a few bunkers and guard houses on the other.

It could, considered Fee, be even more correctly described as the running-away-area.

Samn's sour prognostication about the outcome of the war had been vindicated within a secton of their little adventure at the blockhouse. Them Upstairs had come to an abrupt realisation that they were indeed getting their arses kicked, took the strategic decision that the Cylons could have Bloody Drack and welcome to it for all they cared and pulled everyone off, sharpish. The imminent arrival of a Cylon taskforce, said various disrespectful observers (most of them wearing Guard black), had precipitated Them Upstairs' decision.

"Takes a bloody taskforce for the buggers to be able to make a decision," grumbled Corporal Dex.

"Well," said Fee, philosophical. "We'll be home for Yuletide."

"Great," said Samn, fixing another bundle of solenite explosive into place on the perimeter wall. "What sort of cock-up can we expect this to be? On a scale of one to ten."

"Monumental," said Fee. He turned to watch the lines of Infantry running for the shuttles and transports. "This'll take centars."

"And its not like our friends haven't noticed we're trying to sneak out without paying the bill."

Fee nodded. Up above their heads another Viper screamed past, firing at the Drack forces firing on the running away area. A vicious little circular dance, Fee thought.

The Guard was, as usual, last on the loading schedule, prompting a great deal of resigned shrugging. It was something to accept with equanimity. The Guard was first in, and last out, blowing the place behind them as they left. It was the Fourth Law of Interdimensional-multispatial Physics, or something, said Fee; as immutable as gravity, or taxes, or death. Samn asked to have immutable spelled for him and seemed properly awed when Fee got it right. He said that he could manage inter-dimensional for himself, thank you very much, but it was kind of the sergeant to offer.

It helped pass the waiting time. They were to be the very last out, and Fee was right. It did take centars.

"I don't recall anyone asking me to volunteer to close the door behind us," said Samn, coldly, watching Alpha unit board the second-last shuttle with Mavinne. He turned with a grunt of displeasure, to join Fee on the wall, staring out over to the distant tree-line, watching for the enemy. The Vipers were gone now, rejoining the Fleet destroyers out on the system edge, ready to run for home.

"You took the King's Shilling," said Fee.

"Tch," said Samn. "I was always cheap."

Fee winced internally at the memories that brought, then put it aside as irrelevant. He opened his mouth to say something insulting, when his ears caught a new sound, a different sound. He glanced up at the sky, listening hard. Beside him, Samn stiffened. A familiar, high pitched whine came out of the cloud cover of a lowering sky.

"Incoming!" roared Fee. "Defensive positions!"

"What is it?" demanded Hanson, taken off guard.

"Cylons!" Fee raced for one of the few mobile laser cannon left. "Samn!"

Samn surged past him, dropping his rifle to leap into the gunner's seat. He brought the laser cannon around on its carousel so fast that he had to have suffered from whiplash.

Mavinne's shuttle was lifting off when two Cylon Raiders came skimming over the tree tops.

"Fuck! Fire all cannon!"

Fee left Samn to command one gun, racing towards the others, waving the warriors into place. The unit scattered, running to get the cannon barrels pointing skyward. Samn's cannon started up, belching out plasma bolts, laser guided to track the Raiders across the sky.

"The shuttle!" Hanson yelled.

Fee turned. Mavinne's shuttle was above tree level now, framed in the crossfire from the two Raiders. He yelled at Samn and, a little further away, a warrior manning another cannon and they put up supporting fire. The Raiders peeled off, letting Mavinne's shuttle run for it. One Raider followed the shuttle up into the upper atmosphere and Fee stopped worrying about it instantly. It had stopped being an immediate threat. It had other prey, and the captain could take care of it herself: Guard shuttles were always armed to the teeth and should be able to handle one little Raider. Fee would only worry about it if the damn thing came back.

The other Raider swung round in a big circle, and came back at them. Fee glanced at Hanson, but he couldn't wait.

"Get ready to get into the boat on my mark!" And to Samn: "Bring it down!"

Fee yelled orders until he was hoarse, directing the fire at the cumbersome, disc-like craft. It was what saved them, the clumsy nature of the Cylon design in an atmosphere, its inability to manoeuvre. With four cannon trained on it, the Cylons didn't have much chance, but they came in again on a third strafing run, aiming their lasers at the running Guards.

Fee never knew which cannon hit the engines. The Raider screamed overhead, belching smoke and flame, and disappeared over the edge of the cliff. An instant later, the ground shook as it exploded, hitting dirt a couple of miles away.

"Shuttle!" roared Fee. He bent to drag Dex to his feet. "On the bounce!"

"It's shot to hell," said Samn, quietly.

Fee spun round to look. The running warriors had come to an uncertain halt around the huddle of bodies on the churned-up ground. Three warriors were dead, two of them dismembered by the force of the plasma bolts hitting them, and more were injured, one man screaming persistently, a thin sound that tore through the head like a drill.

There was a large hole in the side of the last remaining shuttle.

Fee could see that the hole was smoking slightly around the edges. No matter how long Fee stared at it, the hole was still there, still smoking.

"Monumental," said Samn, mildly enough. He took Dex from Fee and grimaced, shaking his head.

"What do we do?" someone asked, awed by the magnitude of the disaster.

It jerked Fee out of his shock. Three dead warriors, one screaming, two others on the ground but moving, Dex with a hole in his chest by the look of it, a couple of others slumped down by a cannon, obviously hurt.

And there was a hole in the outer hull of their transport that he could put Samn through.

Fee took a deep breath. "Samn, start a status check. I want to know what we have here. Report to me and the lieutenant as soon as you can. "

The unit medtech ran to the screaming man and pressed a hypo against his neck. The screams died away into soft, mewling sounds and breath that bubbled like something thick and obscene brewing and boiling in a vat. It stopped soon enough.

"Shit," said Fee, and ran to join Hanson. The lieutenant was pressed up against the illusory safety of the perimeter wall, staring at the shuttle. "Samn's doing status. What do we do, sir?"

Hanson transferred the stare to him. It was unnervingly unemotional. "I thought you were in charge, Sergeant? You didn't wait for me to tell you what to do just now."

"There wasn't time."

"Well, you weren't bloody fast enough! They got the bloody shuttle!"

"Oh for fuck's sake," said Fee, shaking his head. He turned quickly, scanning the ranks of Guards, looking for their chief tech corporal. He waved a arm in the direction of the shuttle "Drew! Damage report!"

Drew waved back and ran down to the shuttle.

It was Apollo who stared at Hanson in contempt. "Four fucking yahrens at the Academy and that's the best you can bloody do?" he said, and walked away, disgusted.

Hanson followed him. "Sergeant!"

He stopped and turned. "We're dead meat," he said, very quietly. "It's your job to try and stop this. What are you going to do about it—" pause "—sir?"

He couldn't be reasonable about it. He couldn't make Apollo go back to sleep and give way to Fee, not just here and not just yet. He didn't care any more if he gave Hanson the excuse the lieutenant was looking for to put him on charges, because they really were dead meat and Hanson had a job to do if he had to provoke the man into doing it.

He thought for a moment that it worked. The unemotional eyes flashed back into life and he actually saw Hanson's jaw set, the chin coming out pugnaciously. If it was a fight Hanson wanted, then Fee was up for it, Apollo was up for it... but the lieutenant didn't have the chance to say anything further. There was the noise of something big blundering through the jungle beyond the walls, and then a shout from Samn and the hard, high-pitched whine of shells snapping through the air.

The Dracks were taking advantage of whatever chaos the Cylon Raiders may have caused. Fee half turned, trying to assess the danger. He glanced back at Hanson. The lieutenant was back to staring, one hand out as if to stop Fee.

A shell hit a bunker nearby.

The pugnacious jaw exploded. Hanson's head vanished, showering Fee with a mass of blood and bone and brain in its passing.

 

 

7.3 Siege Mentality

It was no surprise that Samn was the first to reach him.

Fee levered himself up, just as a strong hand clamped onto his arm and hauled. Unsteady, he let Samn hold him and stared at what was left of Hanson, shaking uncontrollably.

"Don't look at that," said Samn, voice sharp, and turned him away.

Fee nodded dumbly. No. He didn't want to look at that. He glanced down to make sure that arms and legs were where they were supposed to be. The whole of the front of his combat jacket was covered in blood and horrible little lumps of flesh and scalp and greyish-pink brain tissue. His face was wet, and the hand he rubbed over it came away red. It wasn't, mostly, his blood. The noise he made came out as a whine.

"Easy," said Samn. "Everyone under cover!"

They ran for the wall, people taking the wounded with them, reasoning that the shells would pass over their heads, that this was the safest place. Fee stumbled along beside Samn, trembling, grateful for the arm that held him up. Another shell howled overhead and everything froze. It thudded into the ground on the other side of the compound, hitting nothing and nobody, and throwing up a huge cloud of dirt.

"We've got to get that gun," said Fee.

Samn gave him an odd look. "Sure we do." He turned to the nearest warrior. "Lars, got anything I can clean him up with?"

Fee almost laughed. Shells whistled overhead and Samn was worrying about personal hygiene! Then again, he supposed it didn't inspire confidence in the unit to have their sergeant dripping with their dead commander's blood and gore.

Samn took the spare vest that Lars took from his pack and wiped Fee down. Fee let him, trying to stop shaking. He felt sick, closing his teeth against the nausea.

"Did you get hit?"

Fee shook his head. His cheek stung where a small piece of shrapnel had sliced him as it passed, but there wasn't anything else wrong with him. He twisted in Samn's grip to stare at the oddly shortened body that had once been Hanson.

"I was standing right next to him," he said, wonderingly.

"Luck," said Samn, briskly. "You're in charge now, Fee."

For a centon Fee stared at him, at the thirty men and women near him in the lee of the wall, and at the bodies scattered around the compound. The living all stared back at him. The dead stared, too, but their eyes, where they still had heads, were expressionless. They didn't have the hope and trust that the living had, because he'd failed them already and they couldn't trust him again.

Samn gave him a little shake and let go. That was all he would get, because they were his responsibility and he had to get on with it.

"What do we have?" he asked, calmer.

Samn grinned, approving. "Four – no, five dead with the lieutenant; six wounded. Everyone else is fit to fight, we all have at least one extra powerpack for our lasers and we have four mobile plasma cannon. And we have the solenite wired up to the walls, of course."

Fee could see one bundle of solenite, only a few metres away. A shell hitting that would be spectacular. That was the word. Spectacular.

"Scanners?"

"Quiet. There's the Dracks out there, but nothing else."

"Yet." Fee straightened up, hoping his stomach would hold up. It still roiled queasily. The gun had fallen silent, but he wanted it out of the way. "Can we locate that bloody gun?"

"I'd get Lottie on it, if I were you. She's the best gunner we've got. If she can't get the bloody thing, no-one can."

Fee took a deep breath and blew it out sharply. "Okay." He stepped away from the wall and turned to face them. "Drew, get back to checking out the shuttle. Lottie, Cal, Rafe, Gaby! Take a cannon each and two people with you to help with target spotting. If you think you need to move the cannon, clear the new positions with me or Samn first. Lottie, locate that bloody gun and fry it. Maddy, get the wounded into one of the bunkers." He pointed to three troopers. "You three give her a hand. Lars, take your squad and see what water and rations you can find. Rest of you fan out along the wall and keep watch. Let's go."

"See," murmured Samn, and grinned. "You can do it."

Drew was already at work on the shuttle by the time Fee reached it. Fee watched for a centon but left him to it and concentrated on more immediate tasks. Samn had come with him, talking constantly to Lottie over the comlink.

"The Drack gun?" asked Fee, touching the edge of the hole in the shuttle gingerly. The titanium was shredded.

"Lottie's got her sights on it. She's just rechecking the co-ordinates and trajectory." Samn turned as Lottie stood up and waved. "Shoot?"

"Yes. And find me Gilly."

"She's over on the east gun, target spotting." Samn spoke into his head set: "Go for it."

Lottie's gun began firing, moving in an systematic pattern that would leave very little alive. Even from behind the walls, Fee could see the explosions, see the tops of trees and other dark inchoate shapes tossed into the air. He could leave the Drack gun to her with some confidence, he thought.

It couldn't be more than ten centons since the shrapnel had smashed Hanson's head to pieces.

Gilly ran up. Fee brushed a hand against his wet jacket, brushing away the memories and sent Samn to take command of the gunners. He went into the shuttle with Gilly, the comms tech. It didn't look too bad inside. The air was hazy with blue smoke and it smelled of burning insulation, but the main compartment and cockpit had only minor damage.

Still, it took him and Gilly another ten centons to get the communications array working. Gilly had to cannibalise one of the secondary sensors before she could fire up comms and call the Whistlejacket. Fee was almost sick with relief when the Whistlejacket answered.

The captain's shuttle had made it. She listened to Fee's report, said nothing about Hanson's death other than to remind Fee that he was now in command, and then delivered the bad news.

Five centons later Fee dropped out of the shuttle, leaving Gilly monitoring the comms links. Samn was waiting, talking to Drew.

"We got the gun," he said.

"I heard it," said Fee, only just then remembering the distant rumble that had come while he was in the shuttle. He turned to Drew for the information he needed.

Drew's eyes widened. "Shit! Patch that? Maybe, since it's the outer hull and nothing breached the inner skin." He looked over to an abandoned landram, parked nearby. "I can cannibalise some of that, I guess, but it'll take time. I'll need help."

"Whoever I can spare from the walls," said Fee, and nodded to Samn to find Drew some helpers. "Get on with it, Drew. Fast as you can do it."

They had a chance, then. Drew wouldn't have been able to fix a full hull breach: the hole in the outer skin was bad enough but manageable, if they won themselves enough time. If.

"They aren't sending a transport back for us," said Samn.

Fee shook his head.

"How deep's the shit, Fee?"

"Very deep," said Fee. "Over our bloody heads deep."

The two Cylon Raiders had been part of a forward scouting party for the Cylon taskforce. The scouts had come into orbit just as the Colonial ships were manoeuvring out. The resulting battle had, Mavinne had said, been sharp and catastrophic and was still raging on the outer edges of the system.

The captain's shuttle was heavily damaged, its engines shot, and couldn't come back for them. Their mother ship, the Whistlejacket, had taken a bad hit and even as Mavinne was talking to him, the other Guard vessel, Teague's ship, was getting the tow lines on to help Whistlejacket limp home. The main transports, fleeing before the incoming Cylon baseships that had to be following behind the scouts, couldn't come back and get them. Two of the transports, the Helen and the Aegypta had been too close and fleeing too fast. They'd collided somewhere above Drack's atmosphere.

Calling the cock-up monumental was turning out to be an understatement.

"Holy shit," said Samn, with a religious fervour that Fee found himself sharing. "How long before the main Cylon fleet arrives, could they say?"

Fee shrugged. "Dunno. This is a small target now, though, without the big energy signatures that would have given it away if we were still operating out of it. If the two Raiders didn't report back, it may be a while before the Cylons realise we're here. That gives us some time."

"You hope." Samn turned to look at the hole in the shuttle's outer skin. "What happens if we take off without patching it?"

Fee started for the walls. "Don't ask. It wouldn't hold out. It wouldn't be pretty."

Although it would be quick.

Samn swore, and followed, solid and comforting at his shoulder as he went from group to group, telling them what had happened and what he intended to do to get them out of there. He could only admire the stoicism with which they met the news. He wished he had half their guts. He was so scared inside that it was a wonder he wasn't shaking.

He and Samn ended up on the walls beside the gates, watching the jungle burn where the Drack gun had been.

"I don't think they've cottoned on to the fact that we're all alone down here." Samn checked his laser power-pack. He'd done it every couple of centons, almost compulsively. It was the only sign of fear and tension that Fee had ever seen him show.

"If they had, we'd be swarmed over by now." Fee leaned wearily against the perimeter wall.

"At least we got the gun," said Samn.

But there was still a hole in the shuttle and no way off planet.

Fee nodded. "That's something."

Neither of them commented that the Dracks would likely move more heavy cannon up to replace the one Lottie had got. They didn't need to say it.

"Any word yet?" asked Dex. The wound in his chest was more ugly than dangerous, and he had insisted on staying with the perimeter pickets, rather than sit with the seriously wounded in a bunker waiting to die. Maddox, their paramedic, had shrugged and filled him full of painkillers. She had far more serious things to worry about.

"Not a thing," said Fee, a little surprised at being asked again. "You heard what I said about them not being able to get a landing craft down here to take us off."

All Mavinne could do was try to get help from Fleet somehow. She'd tried to sound encouraging but the orderly retreat had turned into chaos. Chaos, two wrecked transport ships and a lot of dead soldiers. Fee glanced up. There had to be hundreds of bodies floating about up there. The night sky was full of swiftly burning artificial meteors as the wreckage was pulled back by Drack's gravitational field. He tried not to think what some of the burning debris would be.

"I meant from Drew. I'm not expecting anything from up there." Dex followed Fee's example and looked up at Drack's unexpectedly active sky.

Fee straightened slowly, not wanting, yet, to say that he wasn't expecting anything from anywhere. They'd fight to the end, if they could. They had no illusions about what happened to prisoners, particularly if the Cylons got there. No Guard had ever been taken alive and none of them wanted to break that particular tradition. He hoped he had enough balls to go down fighting. He wasn't sure that he had. He was barely twenty-two yahrens old and he wanted to live very much.

"Like I said, Drew thinks he can get enough of the hull patched to get her into the air," he said. "But it'll take him centars, and even then she'll be slow. We'll not get far in a shuttle."

"Far enough is away from here," said Samn. "And if they get us up there, at least it'll be quick." He checked his power-pack again.

"We need to get away before the tinheads get here," said Dex.

Fee nodded fighting his annoyance at the way that Dex needed to state the obvious and have everything told to him twice. People reacted differently, he supposed. He bloody knew that they had to get away before the tinheads got to Drack or sent another scout wing. They only had the Dracks to worry about right then, but once the Cylon taskforce came into orbit and really started to quarter the planet in a full survey, they were dead, as dead as Hanson. Fee brushed again at the still-damp jacket and went back to watching the trees, wondering how long they had. Every now and again, he watched the meteors.

They were really quite pretty.

 

 

Lars had turned up with enough spare water to let Fee clean up, enough even to pour over his hair to clean it and dab at the worst stains on his jacket. When he'd finished, Samn steered him to where they could sit with their backs to the wall, and handed him a couple of ration bars.

"All right?"

"Dunno." Fee unwrapped one without enthusiasm. He didn't feel like eating. For a long centon he stared down at it, seeing the damp stains on his sleeve. "I don't know what else to do."

It was a close as he could come to asking. Samn didn't need a translation.

"This is not the time," said Samn, "to go all shy and girly on me."

Fee looked at him, startled and more than slightly resenting the imputation.

Samn grinned at him. Fee hadn't realised his buttons were so easy to press. He managed a faint grin back.

"You're doing fine. Better than Hanson could manage, poor bastard. We'd rather have you than him, Fee."

Samn had yahrens more experience than Fee did and he trusted the big man's judgement. He was a little comforted, but only a little. "We don't have much chance of getting out," he said.

"We know. Eat your rations."

Fee bit into it obediently, not expecting the taste. "Chocolate?"

"Late birthday present," said Samn, looking shamefaced.

"Very late." This had to be from Samn's secret stash and Fee chewed it slowly, enjoying the unexpected treat.

"Just eat it."

"I will, if you stop channelling my mother."

Samn didn't get the chance to come back. A warrior raced towards them, yelling. "Sarge! Sarge! Gilly says to come right now. She's picked up on some transmission."

They didn't even pause to stare. Rations forgotten, Fee jumped down from the walls, Samn so close behind him that Fee felt the draught at his heels. They scrambled up into the shuttle together. The air was better, the scrubbers in action to clear out the smoke and fumes and Gilly looked less sick then she had when Fee had last been in the shuttle.

Fee dropped into the pilot's seat. "Lars said you'd picked something up?"

Gilly beamed. "A Battlestar, Sarge! They say they're on the way to take us off. They're coming at top speed but they're at least twenty-five centars away."

"Twenty-five centars?" The disappointment was like being kicked in the solar plexus. "We'll be daggit meat by then."

Fee had held the running-away-area for four interminable centars and they were under constant attack now. Surviving another day, a full twenty-five centars, was just an impossibility. They couldn't wait that long. The Cylons would be there long before then. Luckily, the Dracks hadn't yet brought up any more of their heavy artillery – yet - and the attacks remained low level, with nothing big enough to get through and damage the shuttle further. Drew was working flat out to get it space-worthy and Fee, who had been in two minds about risking it, decided on the lesser of the two evils. As soon as Drew finished, they'd take off and run for it.

Samn's hand fell onto his shoulder. Gilly winced and he felt instantly guilty for losing control, however briefly.

"Sorry, Gilly. Are you still in contact?"

"It's not great, Sarge. Even on Gold channel, this crap is giving us interference. I could only cobble a repair. It's not brilliant".

"It's enough," he said, and put all the warmth he could into it, to make sure she knew he wasn't blaming her.

"I think we must have lost an antenna."

"We did," said Fee, thinking of the hole Drew was patching. "Tell them that we're hoping to get the shuttle airborne in the next couple of centars, if we can hold out that long, and we'll come out to meet them. We may have a Cylon blockade to dodge, but we'll do our best. Give them a narrow band of frequencies to listen out for and tell them we'll signal them and try and keep them up to date."

"Done."

Fee waited until she'd repeated the message and sent it, simultaneously, in code in case the verbals were too poor to be read properly. Samn leaned down and hugged Gilly briefly. She let him, Fee was glad to see. The promised medals must have vastly improved Samn's pulling power.

Fee turned to go then paused, struck by a sudden thought. "Gilly? Which Battlestar is it?"

"The Galactica, Sarge."

That did it. Fee laughed and laughed until Gilly and Samn pounded him anxiously on the back and until the tears came. He hadn't found anything so funny for a long time.

"Well, there's a real stroke of luck," he said, hiccupping and giggling like a child. He just couldn't stop.

"Fee," said Samn.

"It's his ship," said Fee. "My father's ship. Can you believe it?" Samn shook his head, but Fee was still giggling when they left the shuttle. "I'll do a round and tell everyone," he said, when he'd recovered a little.

Samn said that he was reassured that the brief hysteria was parental in origin. He added that Fee's sense of humour was as bloody queer as Fee was and if Fee was cracking up then would he please not do it in front of a lady whose sensibilities could be outraged - but he seemed to take the family connexion as a sign of hope and he was grinning when Fee sent him to take command of their increasingly meagre defence.

Fee started his inspection round; a scurried run from one gun to the next, checking on people and hardware and energy packs for the lasers. The people were quiet, resigned; brightening only a little at this latest news. Only Drew showed his usual profane energy, swearing in the heat from the welding kit, the warriors he'd enlisted to help him stoically dodging the sparks.

He left one task to the last. Maddox had shifted the dead and injured into one of the undamaged bunkers and was working on a badly wounded warrior when Fee came in. She didn't spare him a glance. He moved quietly from warrior to warrior, letting her get on with it.

The dead were wrapped in blankets, travesties of human shapes, reminding him of the mummies in the Kobolian museum on Caprica. It took some resolution to turn back the blankets and look at the men and women he was supposed to have looked after, but he did it, facing his failures one by one and collecting their dogtags. He didn't unwrap Hanson. He couldn't look at that again. He spent a couple of centons with each one, memorising what had happened to them to tell the captain, if they got out of this. She'd have the condolence letters to write.

He wondered what comforting lies she'd tell Hanson's family. At least she could, with truth, say that the man had died instantly and could have felt no pain. That wasn't true of all the blanket-wrapped corpses in the bunker, but she'd tell the soothing lies all the same. He hoped she wouldn't have to tell them to Alex, or his father. Neither, he knew, would believe it for a micron.

He didn't know how she'd explain not bringing the bodies home, but he wasn't going to attempt it, though it was a hard decision to take. The Frontier Guard prided itself on looking after its own. It felt wrong to abandon his comrades dead, as he'd failed them, living; but he'd have enough to do to get the injured and the living home. The dead were past caring if they went home or not.

He knelt down beside one of the wounded warriors. She stared up at him, glassy eyed, her mouth working soundlessly He took her left hand in his. Her right arm was gone below the elbow. "Hey, Bron," he said gently. "How's it going?"

She smiled at him faintly, pupils so wide with the painkillers Maddy had given her that he couldn't tell what colour her eyes were. Her mouth worked a little more before she could speak. "Not bad, Sarge. Are they coming to get us off?"

"A Battlestar's on the way and I've got Drew working on the shuttle. We're planning on going to meet them half way. Not long now."

"Good," she said, sleepily, and closed her eyes.

Fee sighed, and moved on to the next one.

Maddox joined him as he prepared to leave a few centons later. She gave him the shot of stims without asking.

"I just lost Villa," she said, when he thanked her, frustrated and angry. "How much longer?"

Fee paused in the doorway, thinking that he'd have to remember to add Villa to the list, and shrugged. "Centar, centar and half, Maddy, and then it could be anything up to another eighteen centars before we get them to proper facilities on the Galactica."

"Shit!" she said, feelingly, and turned to look at her patients for a centon.

She turned back to him and opened her mouth to speak, but whatever she intended to say was drowned out by the most enormous and shocking explosion. Astonished, Fee saw the whole place erupt and get flung towards him, and he turned away instinctively as the shock wave hit him, punching the air out his lungs so painfully he thought his chest had exploded, bursting out past the ribs. He was thrown face down, something heavy coming down across his back. Then everything was dark and very, very quiet, the darkness smothering him with dust and earth. It was really quite peaceful.

He liked it.

 

 

7.4 Galactica

Colonel Tigh was waiting with the medics on the Alpha flightdeck.

"Do we know what shape they're in?" Doctor Salik enquired, checking over the assembled medical teams one more time.

"Communications are patchy," said Tigh, checking his chronometer. "There's something wrong with their comms array. We know they have wounded, but we weren't able to establish how many."

"Well, I've assumed the worst. We can cope with pretty much anything, I think." Salik turned in a complete circle, looking over medical and trauma teams, life support pods, stretchers.

Tigh followed suit and nodded, satisfied with the arrangements. Not only the medics were ready. The bay was packed with techs and fire-fighters, just in case the ship had trouble getting in or was too damaged to make a clean landing. The commander had asked him to oversee this aspect of the rescue. The shuttle had been chased all the way from Draco-Epsilon-9 and Tigh wanted to leave the commander free of all other distractions to deal with the pursuing Cylon ships. Adama knew he could rely on Tigh to give their guests an appropriate welcome and all the support they'd need. Tigh wanted to do the job well, but quickly. If the Galactica got into a firefight, his place was on the bridge.

The deck shuddered a little under Tigh's feet and he cocked his head to one side, listening. Blue squadron were launching from the pods at the front of the bay, he guessed, and Red would follow within centons. Green and Gold would be launching from the Beta bay. The Cylons were still in pursuit then, and needed to be deterred from following further.

"Here she is," said a nearby tech, then swore softly.

"Something wrong?" asked Tigh.

"She's a bit of a mess, sir," said the tech, apologetically, knowing that Tigh's disapproval was for the bad language.

Tigh couldn't disagree. The shuttle's sides were scored with laser tracks, the paint burnt and blistered, and one of her comms antennae had gone. The hull had been patched, a scar of silver metal a good metre across. It was a miracle she'd held together long enough for them to get her to the rendezvous with the Galactica.

Tigh tensed, wondering if the shuttle had enough left to touch down safely. The landing was hard, but within acceptable parameters, and he breathed a silent prayer of thanks. He waved the fire-fighting crews forward just as a precaution, watching them spray the battered little shuttle with boron mist, just in case.

"You don't often see Guards," said the tech.

"No," said Tigh, thinking that they were incredibly lucky to be seeing them now. If he had been a gambler, he would not have put very much money on the Guards' chances.

Guards weren't common. Adama called them mavericks and misfits, and there was something in that. How else would you describe warriors who were neither fish nor fowl, Fleet nor Infantry, but some unholy mixture of both? The people they'd just picked up had just spent a few sectons acting as ground troops, but would be just as capable of flying Galactica's fleet of fighter craft as were the best pilots that Galactica had.

They were admirable mavericks and misfits, though. When the Galactica had been diverted to help, they knew they were going to rescue the Guard company that had been last off the planet, that had held the pass to make sure that everyone else could get to safety first. That was an admirable thing that Tigh himself would not relish doing.

The Deckmaster turned to him. "All clear, Colonel. They've shut the shuttle systems down. All secure. There's no fire risk."

He nodded. "Give them authorisation to open her up, please, and tell them our medics are ready to go aboard."

She spoke into her headset and waved back the fire-fighting crews. The instant the shuttle doors opened, she went forward with the techs and the medics sprang into action. Tigh stayed back and let them get on with it, letting the medics get onto the shuttle to assess the injured and get them into proper care as fast as possible. There was nothing he could do personally except get in their way. They were efficient and professional and didn't need his supervision. Indeed, so efficient and professional were they that, within a few centons, the medical teams were running smoothly back down the shuttle ramp with a life pod or a stretcher.

Salik was not an energetic man, not built for exercise, but he was keeping up with the stretcher teams. Tigh looked enquiringly at him as he passed. "Two critical, eight serious, another dozen walking wounded," recited the doctor as he scurried by alongside a life support pod. Tigh let him go, waiting for whoever was in command to leave the shuttle.

The walking wounded and the few uninjured came slowly down the ramp, the normally crisp black Guard uniforms torn and dirty. The deck crew raced up with blankets and congratulations that were accepted with nods, but without comment. They seemed intent only on getting out under their own steam. They were mostly rather younger than Tigh was expecting, with a scattering of older veterans. The sergeant who ordered them off to one side seemed ridiculously young, as young as some of the ensigns who'd graduated that summer from the Academy and who were out there now facing the Cylon attack craft.

Tigh reflected that even now the Guards had a kind of hauteur. That was one of their less admirable characteristics; alongside being mavericks and misfits, they were arrogant mavericks and misfits. The Frontier Guard kept to itself, and the two main services had little to do with it, except to see the occasional black-clad warrior walk through Hephaestus station on his or her way to Guard territory in Docks 1 to 5, looking as though they owned the place. They'd pride themselves on not only being as good as the best in Fleet and Infantry, but on being better: the way they were priding themselves on coming down that ramp in the best military posture possible, as if they thought that to show that they were tired and dirty and hurt was some weakness they couldn't admit to.

The young sergeant straightened his shoulders, and even though he stumbled momentarily and had to be steadied by a corporal, he marched up to Tigh, to halt in front of him.

"Sir," the sergeant said, and saluted as best he could given the obvious injury to his arm.

Tigh saluted in return. He noted the injury, and that the sergeant's uniform was stiff with what looked like dried blood. "You're the ranking non-com?"

"Our officer was killed, sir." The sergeant looked faintly surprised. "When it all happened, yesterday. I've been in charge ever since. Guard Sergeant Phoebus, sir."

Then this youngster had been the one to get the remnants of his unit off the planet in one piece. Tigh unbent a little. That, he could respect. "We're very glad to have you aboard, Sergeant."

The sergeant's smile was genuine, bright against his dirty face. "Not as glad as we are, sir, I assure you."

Tigh nodded, and they turned to watch the Guards assemble at one side of the deck. The sergeant made some move to join them but hesitated, uncertain, and Tigh led the way over, not sure whether to be impressed or annoyed at their refusal to be victims, as if they would rather die than admit to human weakness. He was, though, both impressed and annoyed at the way they all stiffened when he approached, as if they expected him to give them a formal inspection. Then he realised they were watching the sergeant, not him. None of it was for him.

"Everyone's off the shuttle, Sarge," said the corporal who'd steadied the sergeant earlier.

The sergeant turned to Tigh. "That's it, sir."

Tigh looked them over. "Welcome aboard. We're very glad we caught up with you. The injured are already on their way to Life Centre and we've got quarters lined up where you can eat and rest. I can see that some of you are hurt - there's a paramedic waiting there to deal with that. Anyone she deems to need more treatment than she can give will be transferred to Life Centre."

The sergeant nodded. "Thank you, sir. We're very grateful."

Tigh glanced over his shoulder to find his yeoman. "Sergeant Barton will escort you there."

"Thank you. But if you can point me in the direction of the Life Centre, sir, I'd like to see the wounded first. Corporal Samn will take charge of the unit."

Despite his desire to get back to the bridge and his momentary chagrin at the Guards' indifference to him, Tigh found himself unbending a little more. He understood responsibility and respected someone who accepted it. It was his own creed, the principle he lived by. It wasn't too great a diversion to take the sergeant to Life Centre, almost en route to the Bridge. "I'll take you there myself. Come on."

"Get that arm fixed while you're there," said the big corporal.

"Yes, mother," said the sergeant, and followed Tigh across the decking.

Decontamination always took a few centons. The sergeant sat patiently on the bench opposite Tigh.

Tigh indicated the splinted arm. "How did that happen?"

The young man—really, the boy was barely out of leading reins!—looked down at the splint as if slightly surprised at its presence, as if he thought that someone had sneaked up and encased his arm in it when he wasn't looking. "Oh, this? The Dracks had some old fashioned artillery, sir. We got one gun but before we left they brought up another and restarted the bombardment. A shell landed on a bunker. The bunker landed on me."

Tigh managed not to smile at the matter-of-fact tone. "You were lucky."

The sergeant said nothing for a few centons, letting the decontamination cycle run. "Yes," he said at last. "I was lucky."

Tigh let it lie. That matter-of-factness probably hid things Tigh didn't particularly want to deal with, even if he'd felt equipped to deal with them. The sergeant said no more. When they were released from decon, Tigh led the way up into the body of the ship, pointing out a few things of interest on the way. The sergeant responded politely.

The lights in Life Centre were bright enough to make the eyes water. Medtechs busied themselves around the beds, moving in a choreography that pleased Tigh with its efficiency. He and Salik didn't always see eye to eye, but he'd never deny the doctor's skill.

Salik didn't seem that pleased to see them. "I'm really busy right now."

The sergeant quite evidently wasn't going to back down. "I just want a quick assessment, sir. They're my responsibility."

"This is Doctor Salik," Tigh murmured. "Doctor, Sergeant Phoebus is the ranking commander of the Guard unit following the death of its lieutenant yesterday. We'll accord him every courtesy due to a visiting commander."

Salik gave the sergeant a sharp glance. "Two in intensive care, until I can stabilise them for surgery. I don't know whether they'll pull through."

"Guards Kerr and Chloe," said the sergeant, quietly, pointedly. "Both privates, first class."

Salik took the implied rebuke better than Tigh would have done. "Right."

"You'll need to know that I gave them as much of this as I could get into them." the sergeant took a used hypospray canister from his pocket.

Salik took the canister and scrutinised it. "All of it? How often?"

"A dose each, every six centars. They've had four doses, the last a centar ago. I know that was too much - "

Salik pushed the canister into his own pocket. "It was the kindest thing you could have done."

"I had no choice."

Salik's sharp glance sharpened even further. "Everyone else... well, some are more seriously injured but no-one else seems to be in a life threatening situation. It's very early days and we're still in the middle of triage assessments. What would be helpful if you could spare me someone in a couple of centars to help us complete the records."

"Yes. I'll send someone up."

"Come yourself and get that arm fixed," said Salik.

"It can wait," said the sergeant, with a glance at the temporary splint cradling his arm.

"In any event we need a list of names to pass on to Hephaestus and Military Headquarters," said Tigh. "There're a lot of anxious people waiting to hear that we've got you safe."

"Yes, sir. Of course."

"I'll send someone down to the compartment we've put you all in, to compile the list," suggested Tigh.

"Thank you, sir," said the sergeant. "Would you please excuse me a centon?"

One of the Guards, a corporal, was sitting up, watching stoically as a medtech cut through the dressing on his chest. "Never thought we'd make it, Fee," he said. Then to the medtech: "Hey! Be careful! I'm attached to that hair."

"You look like a gorilla," said the sergeant. "You won't miss it. How is it?"

"I've felt better. You look like hell."

"Thanks," said the sergeant dryly. "If they don't knock you out, try and help them with some info on who everyone is." He glanced at the area where the two life support pods were. "And if I need to come back here, make sure you kick up enough of a stink so they call me. All right?"

"Yes, although you need some sleep."

The sergeant raised his usable left hand and rubbed at his temple. "Not until the stims wear off," he said. "Thanks, Dex."

Salik snorted in disgust. "Stims!"

"They were necessary, sir." The sergeant rejoined Tigh. "Thank you very much, Colonel. I don't want to keep you."

"Come on." Tigh left with him. He couldn't help smiling, remembering Salik's expression. It wasn't often that Salik was wrong footed. When he saw that the sergeant had noticed his amusement, he said, still chuckling, "I've never seen Doctor Salik back down like that. He's irascible when he's working and people tend to let him get on with it."

The sergeant smiled back. "I live with a doctor. I know what they're like."

The deck shuddered slightly beneath them. The corridor was full of busy, scurrying people running for their battle stations. Tigh put out a hand and drew the sergeant to one side to avoid a couple of running gunners. The sergeant watched them go.

"It seems odd to be a passenger, rather than fight."

"Leave it to us. This is our battle now." Tigh paused, then said, a little discomforted but feeling it was the right thing to say, "And we're honoured to do it."

The young man took that as the tribute Tigh intended. "Thank you, sir."

"I need to get to the Bridge." Tigh detained a passing crewman. "The trooper here will take you down to compartment Alpha seventeen on deck 10 to join the rest of your unit."

"Yes, sir. Thank you. I'm grateful for your time." The sergeant hesitated. "Colonel, as soon as it's possible, I'd like to see Commander Adama, please. It's important."

"I'll ask him, Sergeant, but you'll appreciate that now is not a good time."

"I know that, sir, but he will see me when he can, I'm sure of it. Tell him –" The sergeant paused, and smiled again. "Tell him, Fee sends his regards and wants to talk to him about a job. He'll understand."

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