Word count: 2,833
Notes: I wrote this in less than 24 hours, which is...not something I can manage often! It's is a story about what happened to Kara after 'Maelstrom', but it's also a story about what happens when you step out of your own narrative, and about piecing together your own destiny. I don't have room to list all the other texts and ideas that I referenced (see what you can pull out for yourself!) but there is now a director's commentary. Thanks to agonistes, who told me about the kyil kohr, and schiarire, who poked me until I expanded on things.
Dedicated to littledust, who reminded me that screwing around with the fourth wall could be fun :)
(and by my God have I leaped over a wall)
They shut me up in Prose --
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet --
Because they liked me "still" --
- Emily Dickinson
She will raise her hands and smile at Lee Adama, and he will say, You’re dead.
On New Caprica she would spend hours winding cobwebs around twigs as though by keeping her own corner of the planet clean she could hold the dust, which was not the dust of space, at bay. She wakes up with that white stickiness matted behind her eyes and with Leoben humming something tuneless from where he sits on the floor of the heavy raider. Dust in her lungs, and she coughs herself dry.
“I took your helmet off,” Leoben says, helping her to sit up, pushing her hair out of her eyes. “We’re about to dock.”
“Did I eject?” she mumbles, and is abruptly horrified that she can’t remember. “I…wasn’t going to. I was ready.”
“But your hand touched the lever,” he says, and just smiles when she stares. She decides that she is too stubborn to ask him how he knows. Maybe she hasn’t changed all that much after all.
“Was it you? Were you flying…?”
“This thing?” He jerks his thumb, amused. There’s a jolt that is probably the raider settling, and the hatch starts to shudder open. “It flies itself.”
“Nobody believed me,” she says from behind the dust and the hole in her memory where her salvation – presumably – resides. But she’s almost smiling. “Bastard.”
“Starbuck? Who are you talking to?”
She freezes as Sharon Valerii appears, not needing the severely cut jacket to know that it is the Valerii; Boomer, not Athena. The absent bitterness in her pretty face is enough.
“She can’t see you?” Leoben shakes his head in response; she knows that look, the smug one. He puts a finger to his lips – winks – but she speaks anyway. “What – how is that possible?”
He sighs. Says, “It’s the end of the world, Kara.”
Says, “Anything is possible.”
And it appears that anything is: as well as moving through the real world without being seen by anyone but her, Leoben shows her how to close her eyes and find herself in her old apartment, surrounded by brushes and chaos and wearing a shirt that used to be her father’s. It’s more than a dream, less than real, but she walks around and enjoys the intensity of the illusion. She stops in front of the mandala and Leoben stands next to her, tracing the black words that cut across its symmetry.
“I’m not dead,” she says wonderingly, realising how surprised she is by this fact.
“Never said you were,” Leoben says. She looks at him.
“And you’re not –”
“Uh-uh.” He puts his fingers over her lips and she tastes paint. “We’ve been here before.”
They move her to a room that is not a cell, but has a lock, and she is left alone but for the cold organic humming of the metal. Lights are set into the ceiling and the air is cold, sterile, restless; she imagines that she can almost feel the atoms knocking clumsily against her skin.
Leoben is settling himself on the edge of the bed, and he says, “You’re free now.”
She thinks, We’ve been here before.
“Sure,” she drawls. “Locked in the bowels of a Cylon basestar. Looks like it’s my turn to be the prisoner again. What am I free from, exactly?”
“Impetus,” he says simply, resting his elbows on his knees and looking at her as though he is waiting for her to figure something out. “You’ve moved out of the light. How do you feel?”
“Forgotten,” she says, and thrills.
“I want to see, want to see, want to see!” She bounced up and down with an impatience that she was only partly feeling, knowing with a six-year-old’s unerring gift for cruelty that this would provoke a reaction, which was all she really needed in that moment.
Sure enough, the blow was hard enough to snap her head sideways.
“Be still, Kara,” her mother snapped.
Nobody will try to stop her when she leaves. She will walk past Leoben Conoy, standing with his hands buried in the flickering gel, and he will wink at her.
There can be advantages to playing at madness.
In the apartment in her head, the mandala always needs to be covered up; she will paint over it, but next time it will be exactly the same as it always was. She wonders if she is trying to tell herself something, or if it’s a way of keeping herself occupied, or if she’s just a contrary bitch.
“There is a small sect on Virgon,” Leoben says, handing her a brush, “whose members place great importance in a mandala very similar to this one.”
“Oh?” She makes careful arcs, erasing.
“They call it the kyil kohr. It means enlightened vision.”
“Well, no wonder you like it so much,” she says. “You and your frakking patterns. What do you see at the moment, with your enlightened vision? Any rivers?”
“You,” he says, after a moment, meeting the mockery with his steady gaze. “You always manage to get so messy.”
“That’s me,” she says, and trips on the syntax. “Messing everything up.”
“This.” He pulls her around and gestures towards the truncated tattoo covering her arm. “What was this for?”
For a moment she considers lying, but doesn’t. “It was easiest,” she says. Halting. “I wanted something to show what I’d committed to, something…”
“Visible evidence in place of emotional proof,” Leoben says. “Lazy.”
She stares, and does not want to admit that he is right.
“You’re not the prisoner, Kara,” he says. “Not this time. You need to realise that.”
The tall blonde one comes to see her; leans against the door as though she is posing for something and smiles like thorns.
“You almost died.”
“Someone up there must like me,” Kara says, and refuses to say anything further.
“God has a plan,” the Cylon says.
“She’s bluffing,” says Leoben.
Privately, she’s always been convinced that the gods were entertained by her suffering. She resented them for it. But she never stopped believing; you can’t resent something that isn't there.
“Existence takes priority over essense,” Leoben says when she tries to explain this.
She’s pleased. “Yeah. Exactly.”
The beginning of existence: there are creation myths told to children with bright coloured illustrations to match, but for some reason Kara finds herself thinking about the morning of the decomissioning ceremony, when they were bumping shoulders with disaster and never suspected a thing.
“It wasn’t the end of the world at all, was it?”
Beginnings and ends, beginnings and ends, blurring. She is thinking in circles, coloured ones, concentric ones: and at the centre is her death, which never really happened.
Laura Roslin said: “Do you believe in the gods, Lieutenant?”
Said: “If you believe in the gods, then you believe in the cycle of time.”
Said: “May I tell you the part in the story that it would seem I am playing?”
Said: “I am dying.”
Kara thought about her mother, thought: all of this has happened before.
There are not many ways in which she can break the monotony. Sometimes she takes five hours to cover the mandala and sometimes it’s just the buckets, frantic, and letting Leoben press her against the sticky wall and leave bruises on her collarbone. Sometimes the mess is random and sometimes there is purpose to it. They play at warpaint with the most delicate brushes; they make handprints on each others skin. For some reason it always comes down to their hands.
She puts her palms on his shoulders – leaves a mark – and pushes upwards, downwards, watches his face as he comes, tilts her neck and drenches her hair with paint; it doesn’t matter, because she always opens her eyes clean.
There will be weapons pointed at her, fingers on triggers shivering with the shock that will ripple across the deck, and she will raise her empty hands slowly above her head.
“I killed you so many times,” she says, running her fingertips over him and watching the smudges of white that she leaves behind. Remembering, and wondering if she could do it again. But she’s had enough of death for the moment.
He gives a little laugh, like a punctuation mark. “Nobody really dies, Kara. That would close a door. We Cylons are just a little more blatant about it.”
He likes to quote Scripture into her mouth, punctuating not with laughter but with his own tongue, and he likes to tell her stories while she throws buckets after bucket of paint against the wall until her shoulders ache with the effort. He tells her about Aurora. He tells her about Apollo. He tells her about Persephone, the Kore, the girl who stepped out of the world of the living and into the underworld, and she’s heard it before but she listens anyway because, by now, she can tell when he is making a point.
“Persephone never stayed still,” she says, to annoy him. “Never in one place.”
He catches her in the cheek with a dab of water. “Persephone,” he says, teasing, “should not have eaten the seeds.”
She has moved out of the light and into the shadow; she lives within a sine wave; a pattern that can be seen only from a higher perspective. Occasionally she will catch a glimpse of her own equation, but existence is positivistic: you can’t live it and observe it at the same time.
“What do you think is going on?” she asks, sitting on the bed and staring at the lights set into the ceiling of her cell. “With the war, I mean.”
“You could ask.”
“I don’t know. I think it could make it worse, to know.” She frowns. “Besides, then I’d be…part of it. Again. I wasn’t supposed to be in any danger of going back.”
“And yet, here you are.” He sounds neutral. “Maybe it’s best to assume that everything is going according to plan.”
She laughs, unbelieving, aware of how long she has been sitting in this room. “Do you expect me to believe that anyone has a plan, at this point, beyond survival?”
“Perhaps not.” Leoben spreads his hands. “Perhaps you’ve slipped through the gaps.”
But then he says, “Did you plan to survive?”
They do not seem to want anything of her. Sometimes one model or other will sit with her and ask awkward questions, but never try to force the answers, and hours slip by like grey water. Only Boomer seems comfortable with her, and only because Kara will tell her stories about the everyday tensions that should have been hers. She drinks up Athena’s life with a sharp hungry masochism that makes Leoben laugh and Kara ache: unable to live her own existence, Sharon Valerii takes her observations second-hand. Swallows the bitterness and pretends it’s enough.
“How do you feel?”
Persephone never stayed still.
She beats time to his humming with her bare feet, on the metal, which hums back.
The morning of the refuelling, she and her best friend sat side-by-side and talked about how, despite everything, they were right back where they started. It was true enough to stand up to scrutiny, but they held each other’s gazes in silence and something even truer fell into the gaps. For a few moments she could not imagine a destiny, special or ordinary, without him in it.
Later, she said: “Do you think I’m crazy?”
He said: “I think you’re a raving lunatic.”
But Lee Adama loved Kara Thrace, so it was all right to laugh.
She throws a bucket of white paint onto the mandala and steps back to inspect her handiwork.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” she asks the wall.
Leoben steps up behind her and puts his arms around her waist. “What do you think?”
“I’m not sure,” she says, “but from the perspective of anyone else, I’m talking to myself right now.”
He laughs. “Well, that assumes that whether you are or you aren’t isn’t the point. You’re assuming that what matters is what others perceive of you.”
She turns around and raises an eyebrow at him, and he lifts the half-empty can of paint out of her hands.
“I never said it was a bad assumption. There can be advantages,” he tells her, “to playing at madness.”
“What others perceive of me,” she says, two beats late, “is that I’m dead.”
“You made that choice.” He shrugs.
She dips her hands into the paint and smears them slowly across her cheeks.
“Is it better to stay alive, even if life doesn’t seem worth it?”
Leoben says: “You’re asking the wrong questions.”
The hatch will open and she will step out and the light will fall onto her like shackles.
The idea occurs to her suddenly – “Did I die?” she asks, curious. “Is this…what did you call it…the space between life and death? Am I dead?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does.”
“No. It’s like the madness question.” Today they are wild, extravagant; there is not a surface in the apartment untouched by splatters of thick white paint like bleached blood, like snow. They stand in the midst of the blizzard and he traces her jaw with his thumbs. “What matters is what others perceive.”
She’s starting to get irritated. “I’d prefer to maintain control over my own death, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Good girl,” Leoben murmurs, but it sounds condescending, so when he kisses her she bites his tongue. So he pulls her fingers back sharply; so she growls and kicks him; so they are wrestling and stumbling across the floor in their own local whirlwind. And it is only when Kara has to wrench herself out of his grasp to wipe away the paint dripping into her eyes that she realises that she’s doing exactly what he wants her to do, again.
“Why can’t we do this without the paint?” she asks, frowning.
Leoben says: “You’re asking the wrong questions.”
But she thinks she might be getting warmer.
Her tattoos are as deeply buried in white as the mandala, but what has she really done but exchange one set of coverings for another? She strains to remember who she was when she was unmarked; once upon a time she was comfortable in her own bare skin.
I live in the action of death, she thinks, and opens her eyes.
Adama said: “What do you hear, Starbuck?”
And she said: “Nothing but the rain.”
Nothing but the rain. There is a cyclic pattern there that she can almost see if she looks at it from side on; if she thinks too hard about it then it slides out of focus, but she gathers her patience and sneaks looks at it, soft darting thoughts:
(The morning of the decomissioning ceremony: not an ending, but a beginning.)
(The morning of the refuelling: she decided to die, and ended up living.)
(The endless rise and fall of the sine wave but they’re right back where they started, beginning and ending exactly the same, two points moving in perfect phase.)
(And then she slipped through the gaps, out of the spotlight, into the underworld, forgotten.)
(Living and dying in a pattern larger than herself,
in cycles –
in circles –
with a common centre.)
And she has it.
“I’m leaving,” she says very calmly.
Leoben looks over at her and raises his eyebrows. “Your place is here now, Kara. I thought we’d agreed.”
“I see the patterns,” she says. And grins at him; Starbuck’s grin. “I know what is expected of me. Nobody really dies: you told me that. You’re part of my destiny, but other people are as well.”
“You won’t be free any more,” he warns her.
And she knows that that depends entirely on the meaning of freedom; she has rewritten her own definitions, her own self, a hundred times. She knows how to do it, this eternal oscillation between roles. She knows that being the prisoner is not nearly as bad as it sounds.
“Will you come with me?” she asks.
After a long moment, he shakes his head, and she imagines that he looks proud of her. “You’ll come back to me.”
“Don’t I always?”
She will step down onto the deck with her hands raised and not a speck of paint on her face, and she will seek out Lee Adama and she will smile at him.
He will say, You’re dead.
And she will say, That doesn’t matter.
She will say, I’m still Kara.