'Cadet' was a nice title, one that told people you were going places, going on adventures, but Julian couldn't wait to replace it with 'Doctor.' That would really complete the transformation of his life. Already it was wonderfully different - independent, away from the perpetual pressure of his parents' standards and expectations and fuss, free to fashion his own identity and decide just how he wanted to present himself. The uniform helped - he thought the science blue across his shoulders was a good colour for him, and the crisp black body looked dashing and dramatic, the tailoring making the best of his long legs. Dr Bashir was going to be handsome and debonair, with a ready smile and an easy, cheery word for everyone. He had a new haircut (Starfleet sideburns, as razor-sharp as the barber could get them) and the Academy tennis team wanted him and he was pretty sure nobody guessed he hadn't spoken with this accent all his life.
He liked San Francisco, too, the hills and the sea and the cool damp air, the great red bridge and the eccentric mixture of architecture, and the feeling, wherever he went, of walking where heroes had been, where adventures had begun. He had known he would be a doctor since he was tiny, and he had known he would join Starfleet since he was, well, quite small. In just a few short years he would be out there among the stars, heading for the frontier, and the thought of it made his heart beat faster with excitement.
That didn't mean he was unexcited about the here and now. He was constantly learning all sorts of fascinating things, feeling his mind stretched and challenged, and meeting the most interesting people. The value of living in the dorms and actually having somewhere to bring girls could scarcely be overstated. Moreover, the fickle finger of fate had allotted him a single, so he didn't even have to establish some sort of keep-out-I'm-getting-my-leg-over code with a roommate. He would have needed it - the first few weeks of term were prime legover conditions, with thousands of excited young people from all over the Federation beginning the adventure of their lives, and falling into each other’s arms all over the place.
Things began to settle down a bit after that, as the thrills of orientation and intitiation began to wear off, and social circles began to form, pecking orders to stratify. Assignments and assessments began to fall due, and the Academy’s notoriously heavy courseload began to make itself felt. The loudest moans came from the engineering and hard-science students who objected to the liberal arts requirement - after all, when would an understanding of Klingon epic poetry help them to avert a warp core meltdown? Julian learned not to say how much he enjoyed the very breadth of the curriculum, although he did point out to a few people the value of being well-rounded, and indeed of having something to talk about if you had to go to some sort of Klingon diplomatic function. Responses ranged from ‘Just read ‘em some bloody Shakespeare’ to ‘Oh Julian, you’re so clever.’ Though the girl who’d said that didn’t seem interested in a second date, which was a pity.
All right, he was clever, and determined to make the most of it. He signed up for engineering extension courses and stretched his mind just as hard as he could. Some all-nighters were planned, some were simply because he couldn’t stop reading about something he’d just discovered, and his morning alarm caught him by surprise. He took comfort in the thought that he was young and vigorous enough to be resilient - and went to bed early a few times, when he could bear to.
He was friendly with plenty of people, but so far, had no close friends. Sometimes, briefly, he felt a bit lonely.
Late one night, an idea occurred to him that he could not wait for morning to try out. He was sure he had thought of a way to improve the efficiency of the engines in the new runabout class of shuttles the engineering instructor had talked about yesterday, and almost as sure that he could prove it with the engineering lab simulator. The idea fizzed in his brain until he couldn’t contain it. He got out of bed, pulled on his clothes, and set out in the dark across the sleeping campus, only a few lighted windows showing where people of similar inclinations studied.
Julian let himself into the building with his palm-print and hurried up to the simulator lab, where he busied himself setting up the parameters he had in mind. He supposed, in a vague way, that it was a little bit of a cheek for him to be doing this, but if the idea proved useful the engineers would surely be grateful enough to overlook any sort of hurt feelings about territory. Inter-disciplinary studies were the way forward, anyway, and he counted himself blessed to have such a flexible, synthesising sort of mind.
He was engrossed in his programming, having just hit a bit of a sticky patch, when a mild voice broke in upon him: ‘Excuse me. Do you have authorisation to work in this area?’
It seemed only reasonable to include him, whoever he was. ‘Come in, come in. I need a hand with this simulation. See if you can boost the power output to sixty five percent.’
‘I am sorry, but use of this equipment is limited to the faculty of engineering and its students.’
‘Ah,’ Julian said, looking up properly for the first time. Cadet’s uniform, but operations gold across the shoulders, and above that, the most extraordinary face, a kind of pearly white-gold colour, and truly golden eyes, mild but astute. Pointed chin, soft mouth, slightly beaky nose, high, intelligent-looking forehead. He didn’t look like any of the alien races Julian was studying in xenobiology, but that colouring certainly wasn’t human. He gave him a warm handshake anyway. ‘Julian Bashir, Starfleet Medical. I’m in the extension course. And you are Cadet...?’
For a moment all Julian could think was Oh my God oh my God. ‘Cadet Data. The synthetic lifeform?’
‘Yes,’ said the other, as if this were not eye-poppingly remarkable.
‘It's an honour to meet you, sir! I've heard so much about you. You must have a fascinating perspective into biocybernetic research. I'd be delighted if we could discuss the subject sometime.’ He knew he was babbling, and the ‘sir’ had popped out before he thought about it, even though Data was only two years ahead of him in his studies.
‘I would be happy to do so. However, I must ask you to stop your experiment.’ Data’s voice was gentle, earnest, indeterminately North American.
‘Ah. Yes. Perhaps I should have asked first - but I just couldn’t wait til morning, and I didn’t want to bother anyone.’
‘Is this an emergency?’
‘I’m afraid not. Just a sudden fit of enthusiasm. You see -’ and he outlined his idea. Data’s eyebrows, like brushstrokes in white paint, went up and he immediately made a rather perceptive suggestion. Delighted, Julian elaborated and found that he was perfectly understood, and Data’s next idea filled in a gap he had been hoping he could close with inspiration. The android seemed to forget about stopping the experiment in his curiosity, and his sleek head and Julian’s curly one bent together over the control panel.
As they worked, Julian kept casting little marvelling glances at his companion. One heard about him, of course, but he was seldom seen. Some said it was because he was so brilliant he found most people couldn’t keep up with him, and preferred to focus on solitary study. Others said he was socially retarded and could barely hold a conversation on any but technical subjects. Either way, Julian hadn’t expected him to be so... personable. There was something about his manner he was almost inclined to call sweet, if that hadn’t seemed such an inappropriate word for a sentient machine. He had an absolute confidence in his own knowledge and logic, which didn’t seem arrogant under the circumstances, and yet his way of speaking and looking at one was gently deferential. Julian found he liked him enormously.
When Julian’s eyelids began to feel heavy, he fetched himself a cup of strong, sweet tea, and stood leaning against the wall of the simulation chamber, watching Data complete the program.
‘Data,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘can I ask you a personal question?’
‘Does your hair grow?’
Data looked at him, seeming nonplussed. Still, ‘nonplussed’ was a fair description of his affect much of the time; he did not display much emotion on his face. ‘I can control the rate of my follicle replenishment. However, I have not yet had a reason to modify the length of my hair. Why do you ask?’
‘Just curious.’ Julian leaned over, looking closely at Data’s hair, wondering if it felt real and if it would be rude just to reach out and investigate. The texture of his skin looked so real too, down to the faint little creases in his lips.
‘Power conduits are ready,’ Data said with calm efficiency. He appeared to notice Julian’s fascinated gaze. ‘Is something wrong, Cadet?’
‘You're breathing,’ Julian said in wonder.
‘Yes. I do have a functional respiration system. However, its purpose is to maintain thermal control of my internal systems. I am, in fact, capable of functioning for extended periods in a vacuum.’
Forgetting all about whether it would be rude, Julian reached out and held Data’s wrist. It was lightly warm, as his hand had been when he shook it, perhaps not quite as warm as his own flesh, but how remarkable, even so - and he hadn’t even thought about it because it seemed so natural. ‘And you have a pulse.’
Another verbose explanation was immediately forthcoming. ‘My circulatory system not only produces bio-chemical lubricants, it regulates micro-hydraulic power. Most people are interested in my extraordinary abilities: how fast I can compute, my memory capacity, how long I will live. No one has ever asked me if my hair will grow, or noticed that I can breathe.’ He looked at Julian almost shyly.
‘Your creator went to a lot of trouble to make you seem human. I find that fascinating.’ Fascinating was a small, poor word for it. He wanted to know all about it, every circuit and fibre of it. He turned Data’s hand over in his, examining the nails, tracing the fortune-teller’s lines in the palm.
‘But perhaps in that respect he failed,’ Data said. Julian thought he sounded faintly sad. ‘I may be physically convincing, but I struggle to interact appropriately. I misunderstand idiomatic speech, and I am at a loss to comprehend humour.’
‘Ah, but you used idiomatic speech just there, saying “at a loss”,’ Julian said, hoping to encourage him. ‘You must have learned so much from your beginnings, I’m sure you can learn anything else you want.’
‘Would you teach me?’ Data asked.
‘Teach you what?’
‘Oh. I - I’m not sure I can really do that. Why do you ask me?’
‘Have I misinterpreted social cues? I was under the impression that you liked me.’
It was such a strange thing to say, Julian thought, especially with no sarcasm or defensiveness about it. ‘No, you haven’t at all. I like you very much.’ He found himself smiling as he said it, for it was quite true.
‘Then shall we be friends?’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘The only impediment that I can see is that I do not like you.’
‘What?’ Julian’s smile dropped off his face as if he’d been slapped.
‘I do not dislike you either. It would be more accurate to say that I cannot like you. I do not experience the human range of emotion.’
‘Oh. Then... I suppose it’s all the same to you? You’re just... neutral about everything?’
‘No. I feel interest, and volition. I am profoundly interested in you, and in what I may learn from a closer acquaintance. You may say I am intrigued.’
‘That’s a good start. I’m quite intrigued by you, too.’
In the following days, they spent much of their free time together, talking endlessly. They determined that, in fact, Julian’s idea for the runabouts did not work, but it eliminated a line of inquiry that could have wasted a lot of time and resources. They further determined that Data had just as much difficulty understanding humour as he claimed, and Julian spent quite a lot of time trying to shore up what he thought was Data’s damaged self-esteem. In spending time with him, he was quite shocked to see how much people simply ignored him, speaking to him only as they would to a computer, to get information or give instructions, never asking what he thought or how he felt. Data would say ‘how he felt’ was not relevant, of course, but there was a great deal of ‘what he thought.’
Julian found him a thoroughly agreeable companion, curious and reflective, and he realised that, just a little bit, his feeling of warmth towards him was due to being flattered. Not that Data intended it, but it was highly flattering to be looked up to to such an extent. He evidently regarded Julian as his authority and guide in all matters emotive and social, though to tell the truth, he thought less about the way he presented himself when he was with Data than at any time except when he was quite alone. He was so comfortable. There was nothing you had to be careful not to say to him, nothing that would make him think you were a bore, or strange, or a show-off, or of all things, a nerd.
He found himself, oddly, almost ashamed to have Data with him when he was with other people, for suddenly he was showing another face, particularly in his flirtations; and yet Data said nothing about it, only watching with open and innocent curiosity.
‘I admire your ability to adapt your manner to your company,’ he said one evening, as they left a party Julian had brought him to. To tell the truth, it hadn’t been a great party; a large group had arrived already drunk, and for some reason a bunch of Vulcans who strongly disapproved of drunkenness were in attendance, yet didn’t seem willing to leave, perhaps because they had been there first and had been providing music, so everywhere you went someone was being a tipsy idiot or looking daggers at a tipsy idiot while strumming a lyre. The shy, bookish girl Julian had been hoping to introduce to Data had come with a loud friend who thought she needed to be protected from any man who might try to talk to her, and the definitely not shy girl he’d had in mind for himself hadn’t turned up at all.
‘It’s something you get the hang of,’ he said, shrugging as they walked down the hill towards his dorm. ‘Most people either learn to do it, or decide that they’re going to be exactly the same no matter who they’re with.’
‘I believe that is my default position. Is this a valid option?’
‘Of course. Especially since you’re so polite. Some people just use it as an excuse to be rude to everyone.’
‘Should I attempt to learn rudeness?’
‘I don’t think so,’ Julian said, laughing, walking backwards to look up at Data, above him on the stone steps down the hillside. ‘You’re so nice just as you are.’
‘It is fortunate that you think so.’
‘Everyone will think so once they get to know you.’
Still, most people did not seem interested in getting to know Data, and Julian continued to find it baffling. They began a collaboration on a special project, collating all existing information on androids and other artificial intelligences in order to analyse the commonalities and differences. This meant spending a lot of time together in the library, and they established a favourite spot up on the top floor where it was generally very quiet. This was where the board-and-paper books were stored on shelves of wood and metal, valued as antiques but seldom consulted. They arranged their padds on a table under a window, and passed long hours contentedly occupied - certainly, Julian felt very contented. From time to time, he would look up, his chin on his hand, and watch Data, marvelling at the rapid flicker of his eyes as he read more quickly than Julian could think. And yet, the soft breathing, the steady, subtle pulse, the flicker of white eyelashes as he blinked.
They were not often interrupted up here, usually only by someone with a similar wish for quiet, or occasionally one who loved old things for their own sake and wanted to feel and smell pages and bindings four or five hundred years old. It was a surprise, then, to hear a muffled giggle between the shelves nearby, and a gentle bump of a body colliding, not hard, with a bookcase. Julian craned a little sideways, and was able to see two cadet uniforms pressed close together; the angle and the narrow space between shelves he was peering through didn’t allow him to be sure of anything else, just that the two people had their arms around one another and were kissing, if the sounds were anything to go by. ‘Slurping’ or ‘smacking’ would be putting it far too strongly, but in the quiet of the top floor you could distinctly hear the sounds of two sets of lips becoming much better acquainted.
He and Data had been sitting so quietly it seemed likely that the lovebirds thought they were alone. He flicked a wry look at Data, flexing his eyebrows upward and stretching his mouth in a tight-lipped smile, before giving a carefully enunciated cough and shifting his chair back an inch so that the legs grated audibly on the floor. A startled silence ensued, followed by the faint shuffling and creaking of two pairs of feet very carefully making their way to the stairwell, with a less successfully smothered giggle as the stair door clapped shut.
The simple quiet of nobody else around resumed.
‘They didn’t have to go,’ Julian said after a moment, ‘but I thought it was only fair to let them know we were here, in case they thought they were in private.’
‘Julian, can you explain kissing to me?’
‘I - pardon?’
‘That is to say, I know how it is done, and in theory, why it is done, but I still do not understand. Perhaps you can shed light on it, from your experience. Have you kissed many people?’
‘Well, yes. Lots. I mean, there are all kinds of kisses, you know that, don’t you? The first people I kissed, or who kissed me, were my parents and grandparents, when I was little. And in different times and places, kisses have meant different things, like the kiss of peace, or kissing a feudal lord’s ring, a kiss for luck... you know, it’s not a universal human thing, or hasn’t always been. I was reading a book about the Black Ships and Japan for the history course, and one little snippet about the collision of cultures was that to the Japanese, kissing was a foreign custom. They didn’t have a native word for kiss, and when Japanese translators worked on English love poems and things, they had to substitute words like lick or bite or taste. So isn’t that strange!’
‘But licking and biting may be elements of kissing, and the sense of taste is inevitably involved,’ Data said, his brows knit together earnestly.
‘You seem to know a lot about it for someone who doesn’t understand it,’ Julian said, trying to laugh it off.
‘I am programmed in multiple techniques, but it is theoretical knowledge only.’
‘As you observed, my creator went to a lot of trouble to make me seem human. I am fully functional, and able to participate in human sexuality.’
‘Gosh’ was all Julian could think of to say. He should have thought about it, of course he should; why would Data be made so real and yet not that real? His face felt uncomfortably warm, as if the sun through the window were much brighter and hotter than on this rather cloudy day, and perhaps because of the topic of conversation, he felt acutely conscious of his lips. ‘Well,’ he said, trying to rally, because Data was looking at him so trustingly, so sure he could provide answers, ‘you know, you know then that kissing isn’t necessarily sexual.’
‘But it was in that case, correct?’ Data asked, nodding towards the shelves.
‘And you have kissed in that way?’
‘What, in your opinion, is the appeal?’
‘It - it feels lovely, and it brings you closer to the other person. Closer physically, of course; opening up your mouth to someone is pretty, er, intimate, and that can bring an emotional closeness, too, a sense that you won’t hide anything from each other, that you’ll let down your guard and show your real self, sincerely.’
‘As with a close friend?’
‘Yes. Though, of course, you may kiss someone and enjoy it without feeling any of that, just because you fancy them, and they you, and it feels nice for both of you. That’s quite all right, too. Don’t worry about the true-love purists if you just want to try it out.’
‘Do you think that I should?’
‘If you want to, of course.’
‘Will you help me?’
‘Help you find someone, you mean?’ It was a shame about that girl at the party, but surely he could sort something out for Data; he was certainly handsome enough for someone to take an interest, if they could just get past all that silliness about him not being a real person.
‘Do you think it necessary to involve a third party?’
Oh my God oh my God. ‘You’d like to kiss me?’
‘Only if that would be agreeable to you too.’
Julian hesitated, his mind racing ahead. On one hand he was having to rapidly re-compose his ideas about Data and what he might want or expect from him, not to mention what he might be able to expect in return. On the other, he wasn’t sure it was really the moral thing to do, and it certainly wasn’t going to give Data any impression of the
normal way these things were done. On a notional third hand, it wasn’t as if Data could ever experience the normal way, given that he hadn’t had a childhood or an adolescence and all the things that went with those, like whatever you thought of as your First Kiss, and indeed this would presumably be Data’s actual, literal first kiss, and it was really sort of an honour, a privilege to be the person to provide that, for him or anyone; to try to give the other person a sweet memory rather than something they’d look back on with embarrassment or regret.
‘All right,’ he said, ‘let’s try. I can’t promise anything; you may be none the wiser afterwards, but it’s worth a shot.’
‘Thank you. Would you like to initiate the process or shall I?’
‘Well, as the one with experience, perhaps I should start us off.’
‘Very well.’ Politely, Data turned towards Julian, closed his eyes and waited.
Julian wet his lips, wondering why he should feel so nervous over just a kiss. He put his hand on Data’s shoulder, leaned in and kissed him softly on the mouth. He felt no response, only a kind of alert stillness. ‘How’s that?’
‘No-one’s ever told me that before. How about now?’ Another gentle kiss, parting his lips slightly, sliding his hand to the nape of Data’s neck. A faint answering pressure, then a proper, if hesitant kiss in return. ‘Nice?’
‘I believe so. Your technique is consistent with a considerate and tender approach.’
‘But you’re still... just neutral?’
‘Pity. I was enjoying myself.’
‘You are welcome to continue.’
‘Not if it’s doing nothing for you. That way’s no fun.’
‘I regret that I cannot reciprocate.’ Data looked faintly dismayed.
‘That doesn’t mean you never will. You’re such a wonder, you really are. Don’t worry about what you can’t do yet.’
‘But perhaps I have understood something,’ Data said thoughtfully. ‘The fact that you were willing to do that is an indication of your regard for me; the degree of your friendship. I appreciate it.’
‘Good. Good.’ Julian smiled, trying to pass the matter off easily, and turned back to the article he’d been reading.