It was funny how much Colorado Springs reminded Jonn of Mars—the thin air was almost the same, even if the colors were a little different, filtered through a different atmosphere from a closer, brighter Sun. Jonn didn't stumble over the change in gravity as he disembarked from the transport, but he stepped aside from the queue of incoming students, just to stop and breathe in the air—pine trees, humidity, clay, all the living green smells that were so hard to find on the Red Planet.
When he'd left Earth for the Perimeter that first time, he'd given his dad the finger and hadn't looked back. Now he was down for a four-year hitch, assuming Starfleet didn't wake up tomorrow morning and decide they'd made a terrible mistake. Home sweet home, he thought, looking at the too-blue horizons, but the words rang false. Station keeping; that sounded a little better.
From behind, somebody bumped into him, hard. Jonn was still more acclimated to the gentle drift of Martian gravity, and on impact he stumbled forward and nearly lost his footing. "Hey, asshole, watch where you're going," was what he started to say, turning around, but he stopped after two words when he found the asshole in question kneeling on the ground, surrounded by a spray of discarded luggage, actually kissing the black synthocrete landing strip. "Uh...."
The asshole looked up; Jonn would've put him at sixteen on a good day, and his face was beaded with sweat and pasty white where it wasn't smudged with grayish-brown dust from the strip. "I'm alive," he declared in a dazed way. "I made it. I think I'm going to throw up now."
Jonn quickly stepped out of range, but out of common courtesy he asked. "You okay there, buddy?"
Not-actually-an-asshole blinked, and rose up on his knees, one hand braced on either of his absurdly large suitcases. There was a big smooch of dust across the front of his shirt. "No," he said, sounding stronger. "No, I am not. Whoever designed the trains on this continent is a moron."
"Why's that?" Jonn asked warily, not quiet following the logic there.
The guy didn't answer him, just struggled to his feet with those ridiculous suitcases. (Jonn recalled something about a weight limit on bags, but maybe that was just for people coming from offworld.) "If I never have to fly in one of those deathtraps again, it'll be too soon," he declared viciously, and wiped the dust from his mouth on the sleeve of his windbreaker. He missed the mark on his shirt, though.
Jonn looked around at all the shuttles that had landed—shiny new ones from the four corners of this planet and several others, lined up in ranks to let their passengers disembark and form a queue. He stuck his hand out to Suitcase Guy. "Hi. I'm Jonn Sheppard, and I'm joining Starfleet," he said straight-faced. "Why are you here, again?"
The sarcasm didn't stick; the kid shook and said, "M—uh—McKay. Rodney McKay," he added, as if this needed affirmation. "And I'm far too important to science for them to ever post me in space, so don't even start with me."
"Good information to have," Jonn said. He shouldered his own jump bag, then looked at Rodney McKay and his two oversized suitcases. "You, uh, need hand with those?"
"Oh, yeah, thanks," Rodney said, then grabbed one suitcase and wandered away in the same general direction as the rest of the crowd. Jonn almost left the other one behind out of spite...but then again, when he'd first landed on Mars he'd been kind of a little shit himself. Almost as young, too, and maybe just a little bit cocky. If he hadn't had Mitch and Dex on his side, he'd have probably got himself killed in the first week of basic training.
Mitch had laughed himself stupid when Jonn explained why he was leaving the Perimeter, while Dex promised to keep a bunk warm for him for when—not if—he came crawling back. But they'd split a bottle of Saurian brandy with him anyway and saw him off from Uchronia when he departed to Burroughs Station. In their honor, he grabbed the handle of the remaining suitcase and did his best to follow McKay, and the rest of the arriving students, towards the wide, squat building at the end of the airfield.
They briefly lost each other in the dim, echoing building, where the cadets were divided up for check-in by name—which for some people involved figuring out which name to divide up by. There were signs projected overhead for guidance: S was its own line, and McKay for some reason lined up with G-H-I and had to go back, at which point Jonn lost track of him in the crowds. But after a row of paperwork and photographs, retinal scans and ID numbers and repeating his name to five different people—who all stared, who all looked at his ears like he'd ordered them out of a magazine or something—Jonn made it to the other side, and out of the building. He propped up the suitcase against a wall and waited.
Ten minutes later, McKay came out of the building at a jog, suitcase bumping and rattling along behind him. "Hey!" he yelled, zeroing in on Jonn. "Hey, you, with the hair! Why'd you steal my suitcase?"
"Just babysitting it for you," Jonn said, while McKay snatched the suitcase up and checked that the simple electronic locks hadn't been tampered with. "You nervous or something?"
McKay rolled his eyes and straightened up. "No, I'm just about to enroll in military school! Anyone here who isn't nervous is a moron."
"Well, duh," Jonn said, which made McKay do a small double-take; he frowned, like he suspected Jonn was mocking him somehow. "Just, you seem a little more nervous than most people," Jonn added.
McKay raised his chin defiantly, but his face was red. "I'm perfectly fine, thank you! And anyway, it isn't even your business. So if you're done stealing people's luggage—" He grabbed both his suitcases by the handles, turned around with a flourish, and tried to walk away. The suitcases tipped over in a heap before he'd taken one step and lay on their sides like beached sea creatures. McKay let out a wordless moan of frustration and stared at them; he was very nearly pouting.
Jonn adjusted his jump bag, and in a show of patience and virtue worthy of a goddamned medal, helped McKay wrangle the suitcases back into the upright position. "If you're done freaking out, let me help you get your stuff on the bus, at least. Christ, what did you pack in here?"
"None of your business," McKay snapped again, but his face had turned even brighter scarlet, and not just from exertion. He took hold of one suitcase and clutched it close to his body. "But, um...thanks. For...this."
"Not a problem," Jonn said breezily, and managed to get one of the bulky suitcases off the ground entirely; it wasn't any easier to maneuver but at least it wasn't going to fall over or crash into anything. McKay adjusted his backpack a few more times, got a white-knuckle hold on the other suitcase, and together they made their way towards the buses that would take them to the main campus of Starfleet Academy.
As they settled into their seats—McKay's luggage arranged under and around and partly on top of them—McKay added, apropos of nothing, "Do you think I look young?"
"Not really," Jonn lied.
"Because more than one person in that line said I looked really young," McKay carried on obliviously. "I mean, I'm nineteen, which I know is technically below the recruiting limit but I have all the proper consent forms signed and dated—" (he said this part in one continuous breath, then had to inhale slightly) "—but I'm worried that people won't take me seriously if they think I'm too young."
"So grow a beard or something," Jonn suggested.
McKay blinked at him. "And how am I supposed to do that, exactly?" he asked incredulously. "Are you offering donations?"
Jonn immediately scratched self-consciously at his chin, but no, his five o'clock shadow hadn't put in its usual one o'clock appearance. "Look, will you just relax for a minute?" he asked, letting his irritation burn through. "Getting in here in the first place was the hardest part, right?"
"The exam was actually pretty easy for me," McKay said, puffing up ever so slightly. "I scored in the ninety-eighth percentile."
"Great," Jonn said. "Which means everybody in here is probably going to know your name and how awesome you were." They'd know Jonn's name, too, which meant they'd know who his mother was, and how she'd died; he wondered who would be the first to bring it up. He wondered how he was going to react when they did.
The prospect of widespread recognition actually seemed reassuring to McKay, who brightened immediately. "They will, won't they?" he said cheerfully, and settled back in his seat with a small smile, hugging his backpack to his chest. "Of course they will. They can't possibly not. Hmm. Thanks, Joe."
"Jonn," he corrected, and glanced a McKay out of the corner of his eye, waiting to see if he'd figure it out, if he'd realized anything about a too-human Vulcan with an ambiguous name
But McKay was staring out a window now, watching the buildings on the outer edge of the campus stream by. "John, yeah. Whatever." He shifted, stretching his legs so they took up two-thirds of the available leg room. Jonn just turned to the side, letting his other leg hang out into the aisle. The bus rolled on.
Teyla's roommate was named Claire. Claire was nineteen, and from Perth, Australia. Claire had three brothers and a cat was going to study geology. Claire repeated all this several times, in a sort of dazed fashion, as if she needed to remind herself of who she was and what she was doing in this strange and crowded place.
Teyla tried not to blame her for it—she, too, was overwhelmed and over-tired, perhaps even moreso thanks to her much longer journey. But after the second overly detailed description of where Australia was on this planet, Teyla began to tune Claire out, letting her slighting nasal lilt fade into the background as she unpacked her things. The dorm rooms were sparsely furnished: two narrow beds, two small desks, a nightstand for each of them. In hindsight, it had been for the best that she did not bring everything she had wished to bring—there would have been no room.
She was arranging books on the shelves when Claire's monologue suddenly stopped; Teyla was ashamed to realize she had been asked a question. "I am sorry, can you repeat yourself, please?" she asked.
"I was asking about your necklace," Claire said. She touched her own shirt in the same place where Teyla's icon fell. "It's pretty."
"Thank you." Teyla brushed a finger against it self-consciously, and wondered how much to explain. "It is the sign of the gods of my people."
Claire blinked. "Oh...really? Do you have to wear it all the time, then?"
"It is not obligatory, no," she said.
"'Cause I don't think that's allowed, you know, with the uniform."
Teyla glance at her from the corner of her eye. "The uniform regulations include allowances for culturally significant accessories, do they not?"
"Well, yeah, but if you don't have to wear I don't think they'll let you," Claire said.
Teyla returned to putting away her things. "Then they will have to tell me to stop."
Claire tittered nervously. "Is it that big a deal then, for you?"
"It is my faith," Teyla said, reminding herself to be patient with the aliens. "The Ancestors created us, and we walk in their light. So my people have always believed."
That provoked a giggle, for some reason—though the sound died off as Claire got a look at Teyla's facial expression. "Sorry," she blurted. "I'm sorry, just—I've never actually heard somebody say that sort of thing before. It's sort of cool."
Teyla tried to reign in her irritation, despite her fatigue. "Are your own beliefs so different, then?"
"I...guess so?" Claire frowned a bit, then shrugged. "I mean, I don't suppose I have any. Beliefs, that is."
"You are an atheist, then?" Teyla asked.
That seemed to bring Claire up short for a minute. "I...guess so," she said. "I never really thought of it that way."
"But you do not believe in any higher beings," Teyla prompted, just to be certain.
"Well, I mean, not gods—of course not," Claire said as if this were obvious. "But who goes around telling people about all the things they don't believe? It's like if I went around saying, 'I'm not Martian!' all the time, you know?"
"You would say such a thing quite often if you were on Mars," Teyla observed.
That made Claire giggle again. "I guess you're right. I never thought of it like that."
Perhaps when they were both a bit more relaxed and well-rested, Claire would repeat herself less, or Teyla would find the habit less irritating. "If you do not believe in gods, what do you believe? Some other higher form of life?"
Claire shrugged, and began to play with a soft plush toy that had been sitting on her nightstand, absently flexing its legs. "I don't know what you mean by 'higher,' though. Isn't sentient the highest you can get?"
"There are beings whose powers and perceptions transcend ours, though," Teyla pointed out.
"Yeah, but that doesn't make them higher, it makes them different," Claire protested uneasily. "We should try to understand them, you know? Not just worship them."
"You say that as if the two goals are mutually exclusive," Teyla said, unable to keep her tone of voice neutral.
Claire looked confused. "Well, I just mean—you can't just say something's god or magic or whatever and leave it. You've got to look at it empirically. You've got to work out the truth about it."
Teyla lay down on her bed, and raised a hand to her icon. "There is a difference between fact and truth, though. Science has no answer for questions of ethics or justice."
"But you don't need a religion for that," Claire said uneasily. "You can have ethics without believing they had to come from a god."
"And one can have science without abandoning one's faith."
Claire looked just as uncomfortable as Teyla felt, now, and was no longer meeting her eyes. "It's just a bit weird, I guess," she mumbled. "Worrying about some invisible people in the sky watching you and telling you what to do. I guess all cultures do some weird stuff, though."
Teyla tried to picture herself explaining to Claire than the Ancestors were not invisible, and did not dwell anywhere on this plane, much less the "sky;" but she was far too tired for that, and she did not wish to antagonize the other woman any further when they had only just met. "Yes, you do," was all she said, and never felt herself to be further from home.
The name thing was going to be a problem. Rodney had practiced signing his name about a thousand times over the past few days, but it still didn't look right; he tried Rodney M. McKay and Rodney I. McKay and just R. McKay but it still didn't come naturally, still looked a little too neat compared to the sort of runic squiggle he was used to scribbling out. It had taken him forever to initial all the forms at check-in, and he kept scrolling past it on lists and indexes, beelining for the I section and then having to double back. And all the introductions...people had this funny tendency to look a you like you were insane if you apparently couldn't remember your own name, imagine that.
Necessary evils, he told himself, dragging his bags across the residential quadrangle. The dormitories were over a century old, and had probably looked ultra-modern back in their day—lots of hi-gloss synthecrete and soft, rounded corners mixed with keyhole doorways and chunky ornamentation. Rodney hoped the interiors weren't that tacky or he might go blind before he finished his dissertation. All the doors had been propped open, and despite signs declaring some were "EXIT ONLY" (or conversely, "NO PLEBES ALLOWED," which was just obnoxious) there were still crowds of people tripping over each other and blocking the way and just generalling being confused about things. Rodney looked at the narrow doorways, and then looked at his suitcases; yeah, no. He'd let the first wave of idiots clear out before he tried to fight his way through that.
Instead he fished a padd out of his backpack, found a news site and did a very general search for M. Rodney Ingram or Meredith Ingram. Just, you know, out of curiosity—it had been a couple of weeks, after all. The most recent article was about his father, some award or another he'd gotten back in the spring; the photo at the top was their whole family, smiling big, fake smiles and generally managing to pass for functional humanoids. Benjamin Ingram and his wife Donna McKay-Ingram with their children at the reception for the 2254 Federation Society for Applied Subspace Theory conference. Everthing older than that was just journal articles and press releases.
No missing persons reports, no frantic, global searches—not that he wanted to be dragged home kicking and screaming by the police, but it would've been nice to know somebody cared. Then again, these were his parents he was talking about; if Jeannie hadn't said anything they might still not have noticed he was gone...well, good riddance...
"Excuse me," someone nearby asked, though his accent was so thick Rodney could barely understand him. It turned out to be a tiny guy with a whole lot of fluffy brown hair and glasses of all things, clutching a tatty dufflebag to his chest. "Excuse me, is this Tucker Residence Hall?"
"No," Rodney said. "It's Gagarin Hall. Didn't you get the map at check-in?"
"Lost it," Glasses claimed.
Rodney blinked at him. "How do you lose an electronic map? It's either on your padd or it isn't!"
"I had customized my own firmware data transfer protocols to optimize background memory," Glasses claimed airily, rolling all his r dramatically.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Rodney demanded.
Glasses adjusted his glasses. "It crashed."
Rodney could only gape at him for a moment, trying to imagine how anybody could manage to crash the debilitatingly rugged firmware on a standard padd. "That is a truly impressive combination of brilliant and stupid," he concluded. "Let me see."
By the time the lights around the residential quadrangle were flicking on for the night, the crowds of students had thinned out enough to be manageable. Meanwhile, on the bench, the two of them had partially disassembled the crash padd, replicated the error on Rodney's padd and then managed to restore it with no loss of data but a permanent shift in the color resolution of the display. He had not yet figured out Glasses' real name or where they needed to go to find food, medical care or clean towels.
Still, flying aside, he was beginning to think he'd like it here.
The office they had assigned her in Ohala Hall was small, but it came furnished: plenty of shelves, a desk with a small console and a larger wall-mounted screen. It even had a single narrow window that overlooked a tree-lined promenade. Elizabeth looked at all the empty spaces and wondered how she was possibly supposed to fill them up.
Eight weeks of basic officer training—running and climbing, learning the parts of a phaser and how to program a tricorder, studying into the small hours and up at dawn again—had earned her a set of braids on her cuffs and a persistently sore calf. But she had finished it, passed every requirement with flying colors, and gotten back to Colorado Springs in plenty of time to start her teaching assignment. The Academy had leased her a tiny apartment near campus, though for the time being her most precious possession was a map of the bus routes; her things had been delivered from Vulcan, but she hadn't had enough free time to actually unpack any of them properly. Instead, she'd gone straight into the pre-semester organizational meetings and orientations, long days of meetings followed by long nights of mixers and receptions that were, in many ways, even more important. At least she hadn't had to cook for herself yet.
Admiral Nixon had assigned her Captain Carnahan in the linguistics division as something of a mentor, to help with the transition into Academy life, but their single meeting so far had been a brisk discussion of her schedule: which classes she would teach and which she would take, what certifications and clearances she would need, what internal organizations and societies she could join. It would've been a daunting work load if Elizabeth had been the sort to be daunted by work.
You''ll have to continue your basic training during recesses, Carnahan had reminded her, as they surveyed the list of required competencies for line officers. It'd undermine discipline, sending you out with the same students you're teaching, and putting you in a position to assign them marks afterwards—well, it's best to just avoid it. But everything's going to be Earth-based, mostly summer and winter, to accommodate your teaching responsibilities. Bet it's good to be back home, eh?
That had been the closest thing to a personal comment he had made, and Elizabeth had very nearly winced. For all she'd been born here, Earth didn't feel anything like home; the gravity and the temperature and the color of the sky were all just a little bit off, a little bit wrong. And the people—she wasn't used to being in crowds that loud, to smiles and personal conversations, to shaking hands and bumping elbows and all the other casual touches most humans took for granted. It made her nervous, for some reason, nervous and tired, and that in turn irritated her—this was her own species, the culture her parents were raised on, she was supposed to understand this. Yet she lay awake night after night, listening for the calls of nightbirds that had never flown in this air, turning over doubts in her mind like alien coins.
Not that she was actually second-guessing herself, not at this point. She'd had plenty of time for that before basic training even began. But it was realistic—logical, even—to recognize that passing the entrance exams had been the easy part, on the balance. That there were aspects of this she hadn't fully anticipated.
She'd answered Carnahan, I'll let you know when I get there, and he'd looked at her like he wasn't quite sure he had her meaning right. He hadn't commented, though, and she hadn't elaborated, and the topic had drifted naturally to a happy hour for new faculty and cadet teaching assistants happening that evening, and the curriculum planning meeting the following day.
Her academic credentials had given her authority over the cadets even though she'd officially enlisted just weeks before them, and she was expected to comport herself like both an officer and a teacher. Considering her own main educational experience had been in the rarefied atmosphere of the Science Academy, she was flying equally blind on both fronts; the lecturers there weren't really educators, the students were savagely competitive with one another, and those towering sandstone halls had been places of work, not camaraderie. But she hadn't dared let on her uncertainty—not in front of someone who would be judging her performance later on, whose word could change the course of her career.
She'd just have to play it by ear for a while and hope for the best. Simon would be horrified at the thought.
Someone knocked—this was one of the older buildings and not all the doors had chimes. Was is Carnahan? Another professor? A student, some early arriver? There was somebody at her door and Elizabeth was briefly at a loss about what to do. "Come," she said, resting her hands on the surface of the desk.
The young woman who walked in was tiny—even shorter than Elizabeth herself—and wore a cadet's uniform with a single tab on her collar. A beginner, just like Elizabeth herself, her only distinguishing feature being the wooden disc she wore on a leather cord around her neck. "Lieutenant Commander Doctor Weir?" she asked, standing erect before the desk, as composed as a Vulcan.
The rank still sounded strange in her ears, and bumped up awkwardly with the honorific, but she nodded. "Indeed. What can I do for you, Cadet?"
"I am enrolled in your xenoeconomics course for this term," the cadet said. "I was reviewing the course text and came upon some unfamiliar references that I wished to ask you about."
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow at her. "Cadet, you do realize academic courses won't begin until after orientation week and Basic Training?"
"I am aware of this, ma'am," the cadet said, unfazed. "But I am concerned that I may be at a...disadvantage, compared to some of my classmates."
"Why would that be?" Elizabeth asked.
The cadet blinked. "I am Teyla Emmagen of Athos, Commander Weir."
That made everything click: all the faculty had been made aware of this new cadet, not really warned but advised that her very presence was unique. The first cadet from the Pegasus quadrant, from an influential family on a world whose cooperation with the Federation was key to their Pegasus policy—it wasn't that they were supposed to go easy on her, of course, but more that they should bear in mind all that she represented, all that hinged on her success or failure. Elizabeth's first, inane thought was, she's shorter than I thought she'd be.
Then she scolded herself for the distraction, and focused on the actual problem. "I see," she said slowly, and only then realized that her office had only one chair—an oversight from the facilities managers, probably, but an awkward one. She stayed standing instead. "Cadet, let me start by reassuring you that the Academy's entrance exam is designed to reflect our curriculum. By passing it, you've proven you have the necessary background to begin our courses. You're on equal footing with everyone else in your class."
"With respect, ma'am, I do not believe this is so," Emmagen said, brow furrowing slightly. "I have read the first chapter of the textbook, and it presumes a great deal of familiarity in the history of the Federation and its key worlds."
"I suppose it does," Elizabeth said. She hadn't chosen the textbook—first-year instructors were given a set curriculum for most of their courses, at least the first term. "But we'll review that history as it comes up."
"And this review will be sufficient for my needs?" Emmagen asked.
Well, the curriculum said so, and despite the rank she'd been commissioned to Elizabeth saw little reason to tinker with courses that were new to her, when they'd been designed and refined by much experienced teachers. But then again—
She looked around the office in frustration. The single chair seemed to be taunting her, daring her to sit down and leave Emmagen standing like a schoolchild. Elizabeth leaned one hip against the corner of the desk instead. "Cadet Emmagen, I am a graduate of the Vulcan Academy of Sciences," she explained.
Emmagen blinked warily, as if she wasn't sure where this was going. "So I had heard," she said.
"I'm the only non-Vulcan to graduate from that Academy in its history," Elizabeth clarified for her. "I'm telling you this so that you know I'm sympathetic to your situation. I had many instructors who assumed that what served a Vulcan student should also serve a human. I mostly had instructors who thought we should succeed or fail on our individual merits, whether or not we were starting from positions of comparable privilege and experience. No leveling the playing field, in other words."
Emmagen cocked her head to the side. "How did you overcome this attitude?"
"By studying twice as hard as any of my classmates," she said frankly. "I had to make up the difference somehow, and even when I did get help or advice from an instructor, I still had to put in the extra work to live up to their standards. There's no shortcuts there, I'm afraid."
"I did not expect one," Emmagen said, raising her chin slightly. "Though the advice would be much appreciated, of course."
And because of the missing chair, they ended up standing over the console, shoulder to shoulder, reviewing the chapter and making a list of more general texts on history, philosophy and economic theory for her to study. Emmagen asked the kind of questions that showed she'd already done a little bit of research on her own, at least in a general way, or perhaps that she had some background in an equivalent field on her home world and had already made the right connections. Elizabeth found herself leaning on the edge of the desk and chattering away about different writers and the merits of their texts, so she was a little surprised when Emmagen suddenly checked her watch and grimaced. "I must go soon. I have an appointment with my academic advisor."
"Who is it?" she asked, genuinely curious. She pictured herself having a quiet word with that person, just a bit of friendly advice about helping a student who might not even know what help she needed—
"Captain Carnahan," Emmagen said. Well, there went that idea.
"Give him my regards, then," she said out loud; and because Emmagen seemed so unenthused she added, "And remember, my door will always be open to you as well, if there's anything I can do for you. Not just while you're in my class, either."
Emmagen smiled for the first time, a startling flash of warmth. "Thank you, Commander."
"And Cadet?" Emmagen paused in the doorway. Elizabeth though best how to put this. "My father told me something, when I was a little girl: that some people freely receive what others have to reach out and take. I took my degree from the Science Academy. I hope I'll see you receive your commission."
Emmagen's brows knit for a moment, then cleared. "I believe I understand, Commander Weir. Thank you for the advice."