It's kinda weird? I don't know - I like it, but it's not my usual thing. Anywho.
Title: When the Time Comes
Specs: Battlestar Galactica, Laura, spoilers through S4, 3500 words
Rating: G (I seriously don't even think there's a single curse word)
When Laura was nine years old, her father took her to Delphi for a day trip, to see the circus. It had been a trying few months for the little girl. She had finally – finally – become a big sister, but the excitement of a new baby had worn off, and Laura spent most days feeling overlooked and unimportant. There was a bully at school, a girl named Octavia, who had begun to tease Laura for all sorts of things; the worst offense was the rhyme she had come up with on the playground. Laura Roslin, skinny and straight, too many freckles to get a date. The kids had started chanting it while they jumped rope. But worst of all were the nightmares. They evaporated upon waking, but Laura felt them the rest of the day; a sense of unease, a feeling of being watched, of something just around the corner, waiting for her. She had tried to explain it to her father without having any of the right words. Whatever it was she felt didn’t seem like a person, or even a monster – just something. Something too large for their house, and rather than bend and fold itself, it had bent and folded their rooms and floors, the very air they breathed. Laura had the sense of holding something in her hands just as she awakened, something that wasn’t quite there. She only had to close her fingers to hold it, but she couldn’t – whatever it was had too many sides, was simply too big.
But it was there, just as she awakened from a nightmare she could never remember. There in the house, waiting and watching, knowing her. Whatever it was, it knew her.
Her father listened, never once telling her that it was all in her head, or trying to explain it away. He had listened, running his fingers through her hair. Three days later, he had bought their tickets to Delphi.
They had arrived in the city just as the sun rose. Laura had never been before, and had never seen a circus the likes of which Delphi put on. The aediles spared no expense; the city was festooned in fresh flowers, ribbons and silk, freshly painted statues and buildings. Even inside the mag train station, there were tables set up with free food – pigeons roasted in oil-filled amphorae; platters of figs; big, bubbly chicken pot pies; and wine, wine, wine. Laura was allowed a sip in the morning, and another when they stopped for a picnic lunch on the wide lawn beside the river.
There were plays in both the big stone amphitheater and the smaller, temporary theaters constructed out of wood set up all over the city. Pantomimes and farces, the tragedies of Lucretius, a musical sing-along of the year’s most popular shows. A grand parade, better even than Caprica City’s annual triumph, and Laura’s father couldn’t set her on his shoulders anymore, but he did hoist her up when the dancers came through.
But the best, the absolute best, was the gladiator show. Laura enjoyed watching the mock sea battle and the net sparring, but she loved the wrestling, and adored the boxing. Her father bet five cubits on the Thracian, who seemed scrawny and undersized next to his hulking opponent. “Brute strength isn’t everything,” he shouted in Laura’s ear, the crowd noise deafening. “Most of the time, it’s better to be smart and cunning. See the way the Thracian just watches? He’s sizing the big one up, figuring out how he moves, whether he tends to feint to the left or the right. Later, when they’re in the thick of it, he might be able to guess his opponent’s next move, and that can be enough to decide the match.” Her father’s words were prescient, and he won enough money to buy her a little blue glass figurine of a dancer. Then they ventured onto the Street of Mysteries.
Laura had a book at home about Delphi’s Street of Mysteries, which was the city’s biggest tourist attraction next to the Museum of the Colonies. There were fortune tellers and augurs, salons where the patrons drank thick herbal teas and inhaled wisps of scented smoke, baths and saunas. But they marched straight past all of these, as though Laura’s father knew exactly where he was going. He did, in fact, though Laura would not learn this until decades later, in the year that he died.
The Oracle of Delphi was the most sought-after Oracle on Caprica; perhaps from all twelve worlds. She called herself Pythia Juvenis, the Young Pythia, which should have been a gross blasphemy, but any thoughts of scolding the Oracle for her impertinence vanished as soon as one entered her rooms Laura expected something dark and ominous, but instead the space was bright, almost blinding. The tall, narrow windows seemed to let in more sunlight than there actually was outside. Curtains of silk hung on the walls, seeming to glow; bronze mirrors shined to a high gloss reflected and amplified the light even more. Laura and her father knelt on soft pillows resting before a basin filled with cool, silver water. He handed Laura a cubit – a single cubit, it seemed an insult – and she slipped it into the water. It fell for ages before it finally settled on the bottom of the shallow basin.
They waited, the room warm and yet not at all. Laura felt her eyes grow heavy. Then, with no preamble, she felt it. The thing that waited for her; the thing that knew her. Laura opened her eyes, and Pythia Juvenis stood before them. There was nothing young at all about the woman – she was a hag, crooked and bent. Her skin seemed paper-thin, and her nails were thick and yellow. But her eyes were beautiful, a soft and dreamy blue. The Oracle spared not a glance for her father, but stared at Laura, a gaze that trapped her, like the hawk circling above the rabbit.
“Why are you here?” the Oracle asked. She had a cane in her hands, and she thumped it against the side of the basin. The cubit in the bottom shimmered.
“I don’t know,” Laura said, her heart hammering.
“Don’t lie to me, child. I remember the day you were born.” Pythia Juvenis finally looked away, and Laura sagged, sighing with relief. The Oracle leaned on her cane as she made her way to the wall, brushing aside one of the curtains to reveal plain wooden shelves, leaning stacks of books. There was something strangely comforting about seeing something so plain and functional in this place; the woman wasn’t magical after all. The Oracle selected a book seemingly at random. She made her slow way back to the basin, lowering herself with a muttered curse; no soft pillow for her old bones. The book was opened carefully – a codex. Thin, brittle sheets of vellum held together with leather straps. Laura found she was holding her breath as Pythia Juvenis turned the pages and read, her lips moving soundlessly.
“What book is that?” Laura asked in a whisper, not wanting to speak to this strange old woman, but wanting to do nothing else at the same time.
“It is the last of the Sibylline Books,” the Oracle answered, still thumbing through the codex.
“The Sibylline Books are a myth,” Laura’s father said. He was ignored. The old woman did not look at him or seem to hear him; she paused not a moment in her slow, careful turning of pages. After a few minutes, the room filled with silence except for the woman’s breathing, the crinkled turning of the pages, she stopped, slowly drawing one gnarled finger down the page.
“What do you dream, Laura?” the Oracle asked. Laura’s father gasped, but this time he was ignored by both women, young and old.
“I don’t know,” Laura said, aware that she was grabbing onto the pillow with tight fists, aware that a thin trickle of sweat was running down her spine.
“Tell me what you dream.”
“I don’t know,” she said again, more forceful this time.
“You wake up trembling, your sheets tangled around your legs. You want to cry. You want to climb into bed between your parents, but you’re too old for that. What makes you so scared? What do you dream?”
“I don’t know!” Laura’s leg jerked, and her foot kicked the basin. Water slopped out. Even as she shouted the words, she remembered one single image, appearing clear as day in front of her eyes: doors, opening in one slow, smooth motion. A sliver of light as bright as a supernova growing and growing. There was something on the other side, something vast and unknowable. But it knew Laura, oh yes; it had its eye on her.
Pythia Juvenis watched her, her soft blue eyes moving over Laura’s face, catching the tremors that Laura could not hide. The Oracle smiled, then laughed, softly; and just like her eyes, the laugh was young. Laura felt her anger slip away, along with the sharp jolt of fear that had stabbed through her when the single image from her nightmares had appeared. Laura felt the Oracle’s laughter swirl around her, something warm and gentle. A smile came to her face, too, unbidden, and she looked down shyly at the water basin. In its reflection, one of the polished bronze mirrors. And in that reflection, the Oracle. This woman was not old, though; age had never touched her – a spring bloom unhaunted by frost. Her face was full and round, her cheeks rosy, her smile warm and friendly. The same soft, dreamy blue eyes. A glimpse of the true Pythia Juvenis, a maiden as fair as any who had lived, but a glimpse was all. Then something moved the basin, though Laura saw nothing do so; rings along the surface, obscuring the reflection for a moment, and when the water cleared Laura could only see the hag.
“Listen to me, child,” the Oracle said, and Laura’s head snapped up. The old woman leaned over the basin, her face suddenly close. No warmth in her soft blue eyes now, only a keen, penetrating stare. Laura felt her very soul was being examined, and she waited patiently. “Ah, yes. You are listening.”
Laura felt herself on the verge of a great revelation. Whatever the hag said next would change her life. A slow rolling wave in her stomach, something deeper than butterflies.
“Jump,” the Oracle said.
Laura waited, and then waited some more, but nothing further was forthcoming. “Jump?” she asked. The Oracle nodded, reaching up with one yellow fingernail to delicately pick at her one remaining tooth.
“What?” Laura’s father asked, startling her; she had forgotten he was there. Pythia Juvenis held up that same fingernail, shushing him with the gesture, even as she never looked away from Laura.
“When the time comes, jump.”
"Is that what the Sibylline Book says?" Laura asked. No answer - the Oracle slapped the codex shut, struggled up to her feet. Laura sat frozen, sure the old woman would fall, her brittle bones snapping, but Pythia Juvenis did not fall. She managed to stand upright, not even dropping the old book. "What did the book say?" Laura asked again, curiosity burning inside. The Oracle replaced the codex on its shelf, straightened the curtain, then walked to the back of the room.
"When should I jump? What do you mean?" The curtains swayed back and forth, the soft whisper of fabric shockingly loud, and then the Oracle was gone. Laura and her father sat for another moment, and then he was grabbing her arm roughly, dragging her to her feet. He marched out of the Oracle's room, and Laura had to jog to keep up.
"What did she mean, daddy?"
"It didn't mean anything. Oracles always say something vague, something you could interpret a hundred different ways. That way she's never wrong."
"But telling me to jump isn't vague." Her father didn't answer that, and they swept away from the Street of Mysteries, even though Laura still wanted to explore. And even though her father had mentioned staying the night a few times that day, they went straight back to the train station. It wasn't yet dinner time as they were making their way out of Delphi, and instead of eating more marvelous delicacies, they ate cold sandwiches in their car.
It wasn't until they were more than halfway home that Laura realized that the Oracle's words had terrified her father.
Laura awakened, the dream dissipating like shreds of fog in sunlight. The opera house - stairs and corridors, rooms and rooms, the wide lobby. Hera running, somehow too fast to be caught. Laura caught sight of Sharon across the way, and she had to get to the little girl first, and there was anxiety and tension in her breast, and guilt, too - why did she need to take the child from her mother? But she did, she knew it, and she hurried down the stairs, feeling her hair bounce on her shoulders and brush against her cheek.
They got to Hera first. Picking her up, taking her away. The doors opening, a single line of light too bright to look at, growing wider and wider, swallowing them up. Laura had failed. Every time she dreamed this, she failed.
The anxiety and the tension and the guilt and the disappointment lingered, as they always did. They were easier to ignore now, though; Laura worried more about the tickle deep in her lungs. Her body screamed at her to give in and cough, but Laura knew she could not. She had only had so much energy left - she imagined a clear glass jar, filled with some bright liquid, and each time she exerted herself a little bit of that liquid was drawn away. Once she started coughing, it would be hard to stop. So she breathed in slow and steady, deep and deliberate, and the itch lessened. It didn't go away, it never went away these days, but she thought she would be okay. This time.
The pillowcase was rough against her bald head. She remembered the sensation of her hair brushing her cheek - how she missed her hair. The wig wasn't the same, the fibers of it too heavy. It was lying on the table beside her bed, she could see it out of the corner of her eye. Soon, she would have to put it back on. Struggle into her clothes. She needed to make it to the hangar deck. Bill was waiting for her; there was no time to waste. She had a line of salt to cross.
Laura sat up; there wasn't much left in the jar. Shaking fingers found her wig. A moment to breathe, to draw what strength she could. Dressing, and she refused to ask for help. This was the last time she would put on these clothes; she knew that.
Walking down the halls, so empty these days. She remembered that day in Delphi - the Oracle had seemed so very ancient. Laura hissed a laugh between her teeth; maybe the woman hadn't been that old. Maybe she'd just had breast cancer. Laura decided she wouldn’t mind having a cane herself.
She woke up with a start, sitting up straight in bed. A line of light on her wall, but it ran horizontally, and it wasn't very bright. Still, for a moment, the nightmare gripped her tight.
"The queen of the gods," she heard herself saying, as though the words came from a great distance. "I have to save her. The queen of the gods."
Laura shook her head; that was crazy. She was too young to sound crazy. But were you crazy if you knew that you were crazy?
Feeling silly, and looking around her dark room even though she knew she was alone, Laura slipped out of bed. She stood beside it for a moment, the floor cold under her feet. She closed her eyes and jumped, a tiny hop in the air. She waited. Laura opened her eyes and looked around - nothing, of course.
She climbed back into bed, and arranged the covers over her chest with great deliberation. "They're just dreams. That's all. They don't mean anything." Laura thought she was talking to herself, but a part of her knew that wasn't true. She was talking to the old woman, as though the Oracle could hear her.
"They don't mean anything."
Last night the biggest decision facing Laura had been whether to heat up some leftovers, or to order some take-out. She'd been worrying about the meeting with the representative of the teacher's union, of course, though she'd been fairly confident in working everything out. But for fifteen long minutes, she'd dickered back and forth between eating day-old potstickers or getting a nice big sloppy steak sandwich delivered.
Now everyone was looking at her, waiting for her to make the call. Captain Apollo was pointing out the cold, hard facts - if they waited, if they tried to transfer the passengers from the sub-light ships, they might make it. But every second they stayed in this section of space was another second the Cylons could show up and destroy them all. Mr. Doral was begging her not to give up - if they waited, they could save thousands of lives, and if they left they would almost certainly doom those on the sub-lights.
Laura had long ago forgotten that day in Delphi. It would be another two years before she remembered her childhood nightmares. But suddenly the room seemed much brighter than it should have been, and even though spaceships were always cold, Laura felt a single drop of sweat trace a line down the center of her back.
The time had come.
"We jump," she said, voice quiet. Maybe she would have made the same choice regardless, but she could only hear the old woman’s words echoing over and over. The decision made, the ship’s captain and the handsome young pilot left to arrange things; Mr. Doral watched her for a few moments, as though waiting for her to change her mind. He too left. Laura was alone.
She sat down, not seeing the cabin around her, not feeling the chair beneath her. When the time comes, jump. Part of her brain was giving the rest of her brain a stern talking-to. That sensible part was saying that she couldn’t be remembering the words correctly; that if she were remembering the words correctly, the fact that they seemed to apply perfectly to this situation was merely a coincidence. It was far more likely that, overwhelmed and, she had to be honest, a little in shock, she had created a compelling reason to abandon thousands of people to certain death. Why the vague memory (that’s a lie, Laura, it’s not a vague memory at all, not any more) of an Oracle’s words would be more compelling than the cold, hard facts she didn’t know. She had never been a particularly religious person; certainly not the last few years.
The window was right beside her, but she would not look out. She abhorred her weakness even as she recognized it, knew that she should confront those about to die because of her, because of prophecy, for Hera’s sake. But she did not. She could not.
The captain began to count down. When the time comes, jump. Had the Oracle seen this moment, seen this choice? Laura kept a firm grip on the edges of the chair, suddenly feeling weightless. If the old woman had, she would have known the destruction that was to befall them; known and done nothing.
Perhaps there was nothing she could have done. Perhaps this was all. The gods were supposed to speak through Oracles. Maybe saving a few was better than saving none, if they were to be saved at all.
In the second of the jump, over in a heartbeat, stretching for years, Laura felt a presence in the cabin. It was too big for the cabin; she felt her own body bend and twist to make room (it’s just the jump it always feels like this it’s not the same that was all pretend you made it up as a kid), felt the air seem to grow too thin. And then they were back in normal space, light years between them and the sub-lights left behind.
Laura didn’t feel whatever it was anymore, and thought for a second that she had imagined it, but she knew that wasn’t true. It was there, the thing from her childhood, the thing that knew her. She still felt the weight of its gaze on her.
She would feel that gaze until the day she died.