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Immortal

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In some families, joining is spoken of as though it is expected, the way that it might be presumed someone will follow a parent into a profession or the family business. In Jadzia’s family, it is spoken of as though it happens to other people – the more fortunate, the lucky, people who are not them. There is no one in her family who is joined, no one to point to as proof that it might be something to strive for.

She might as well wish to have been born another species, or turn into a tree.

***

The first time Jadzia encounters someone who is joined, she is eight. Her sister, Ziranne, two years older, has just passed the first test for joining. Officially the aptitude tests exist to help shape their education – identifying their strengths as well as areas which can be improved – but unofficially, low scores at this age are difficult to overcome in the future.

The initiate programme lasts three years, and applicants must be at least twenty when they enter. But it is understood that every step towards adulthood provides an opportunity to excel, a chance to demonstrate that someone might be that one in a thousand.

Ziranne is so pleased to be getting a medal for high achievement, even though joining is what happens to other people, other families. Jadzia can see it in her smile, the bounce in her step.

A woman delivers a speech before the medals are handed out. She has silvery hair and something in her voice that makes everyone listen. She talks of the importance of working hard, of putting all you have into whatever it is you choose to do. And then she talks about her own life. It takes Jadzia a few minutes to figure it out. The details are like something out of her history class. History is not her favourite subject. She enjoys it – she enjoys all her subjects – but she doesn’t stay up late with her history texts the way she does with her biology experiments.

This woman was alive – or part of her was alive – hundreds of years ago. She’s witnessed changes in their society, from having limited contact with nearby worlds to sending ambassadors out all over the quadrant, from having only a vague understanding of the symbionts to the refining of the Symbiosis Commission’s selection process.

Jadzia feels a chill run through her that has nothing to do with the temperature of the room. Some Trills have this – this extraordinary existence. She’s always known this. Her whole life, she’s known this.

But suddenly it’s as though this is new information, like something in the atmosphere has shifted.

***

When she is fourteen, her best friend, Alina, is the only one Jadzia talks to about how much she wants to be joined.

Ziranne is still doing everything right, is still eligible, but she talks about becoming an initiate so casually, as one of many options. If she stays up late, it’s because she’s having fun with her friends or talking to her boyfriend, not because she’s reading something or testing out a new theory that just won’t get out of her head.

Their parents are supportive. Kind. They are not fiercely ambitious for their children. All they want is for Jadzia and her sister to be happy. She understands this.

It’s why she can’t tell anyone except Alina, who is also brilliant, who is also fascinated by joined Trill. They can recite the criteria for application to the initiate programme off by heart. They know the statistics: five thousand initiates enter the programme each year. Three hundred symbionts, on average, become available. Candidates are chosen in their third year, and usually joined within the year.

Alina, who loves holonovels and dreams of becoming a writer, shares one with Jadzia about an initiate called to be joined before the programme’s end.

“It happens sometimes,” Jadzia says. “If a host dies, and if everyone picked the previous year has already been joined.”

“It’s unlikely, though,” Alina says. “I wonder what happens if it’s a good year. For the hosts, I mean. Imagine being selected for joining and then having to wait for someone to die.”

Jadzia feels a shiver go down her spine. “It’s weird, right? The way someone else has to die so we can be joined.”

“But everyone has to die eventually,” Alina points out.

What they don’t say is that being joined somehow compensates for that. If your memories can live on in the symbiont after you die, then really what they are searching for, what they are working towards, is immortality.

***

When she is seventeen, she applies to Starfleet Academy. She lists off the scholarships she’s earned, the prizes she’s won, and tosses and turns every night until the communication comes through informing her she’s eligible for the entrance exams.

The competition is intense, but she’s used to that. She also knows, although she’s not sure what to do about it or what it means, that people underestimate her. She blushes when she meets new people, and struggles to raise her voice above a whisper. Apart from her family, Alina, and a handful of her teachers, there are very few people she feels comfortable around. She doesn’t make any friends during the gruelling exams, but she doesn’t mind.

She is officially invited to join the ranks of the cadets of Starfleet Academy the same day the application deadline for that year's initiate programme passes. At dinner, her sister says nothing. As her parents beam proudly at their younger daughter, Jadzia looks across the table for a hint of anxiety, or pride, or something, but there’s nothing there.

***

At nineteen she returns home for her sister’s wedding.

“She looks so happy,” Alina says, and Jadzia wonders if she detects a hint of wistfulness in her friend’s tone.

“She is,” she says. Ziranne is now a nurse, who returns home sometimes with sad eyes, but always speaks of her patients with love. Her husband is a kind man who works at the same hospital, some administrative job that sounds immensely tedious to Jadzia but one she knows he enjoys.

Alina has not left the planet. Jadzia hoped she might end up on Earth. It would be nice to have a friend, not just roommates and classmates. She is writing, and studying, and preparing her application for the initiate programme. Jadzia knows she’ll be a stronger candidate going in after graduating from the Academy, and she knows it makes sense for Alina to apply now, but a part of her still wishes they could end up there together. There’s another part of her that knows it would be awful if one of them was accepted when the other wasn’t.

“Do you think it’s possible to be really happy without being joined?” Alina asks. In a whisper, of course, because Jadzia’s family still don’t know. As far as they’re concerned, becoming a Starfleet officer is her sole goal in life.

The word “no” is on Jadzia’s lips, but she doesn’t let it escape. She looks at her sister. “Yes,” she says slowly.

Alina still understands her in a way no one else does. “Not everyone’s suitable for joining, after all,” she says, verbalising Jadzia’s thought for her.

***

The communication comes late at night, but Jadzia is still up. She has an assignment due in for her exoarcheology class, and the time slips away when she’s working on something she’s passionate about.

Alina’s face appears on the screen, her green eyes filled with tears. “They didn’t want me,” she says. Jadzia understands instantly.

They talk for hours. Outside, there are cadets coming home from parties, or venturing out for early-morning exercises or training.

At seven, when Jadzia has an hour to eat breakfast and shower and get to her first class, Alina asks for the only favour she’s ever asked for. “Can you come home? Just for a few days. I’d really like to see you.”

Jadzia’s assignment is due tomorrow. Her schedule is intense. It’s the way things are at the Academy. She can’t afford to take time off. Not if she wants to graduate at the top of her class, with a record that will impress not only Starfleet but the Symbiosis Commission.

“I’m not sure,” she says. But even as she says it, she knows the answer will be no.

***

It is an accident, though the first thought that springs to mind, before she hears all the details, is that it’s not. That somehow if she had done just this one thing for her best friend, a person who needed her, then everything would be okay.

Forty-two Trill die in the shuttle disaster. The reports find nothing particularly special about an unjoined twenty-year-old woman, instead focusing on a joined Trill in his fifties and the four-hundred-year-old symbiont that perished.

Jadzia hates that the symbiont’s death seems to matter more than her friend’s, even as another part of her thinks it does, somehow.

She ends up missing classes and deadlines anyway, although the Academy instructors are understanding. She doesn’t cry at the funeral. Not then. But after.

After, she can’t stop.

***

Ziranne gives birth to a beautiful baby boy and all Jadzia can think when she looks at him is that one day this child will die. Will die and be gone forever, all of his thoughts and dreams and memories just gone.

She thought she understood, before.

She wants to cheat death. She wants it so badly she can feel it in her chest and in her belly. There is a space for immortality within her, and she is determined to fill it.

***

The day after she is accepted into the initiate programme, she visits Alina’s grave. “I won’t forget you,” she promises the ground. She looks up into the sky and wonders if joined Trill carry around the regrets of all their former lives, or if the symbiont somehow manages to mediate it for them and make daily life bearable.

***

Curzon Dax has a way of looking at her that makes her feel ten instead of twenty-two. Nothing is good enough for him. He’s far from perfect himself – the stories about Dax are the stuff of legend – but she understands that he’s already proven himself. She still has to.

She catches him one day looking at her slightly differently. Softer somehow. She hopes that it might mean he approves. That the effort she’s put into trying to impress her first field docent has finally paid off.

She understands only afterwards, when she finds out he’s recommended she leave the programme, that it must have been pity in his eyes that day.

***

It’s only when she reapplies that she tells her parents. Well, why not? Why pretend that she’s doing research instead of throwing herself into the most difficult training programme her planet has to offer?

She has nothing left to lose. She’s already been terminated once. She knows that no one has ever successfully been admitted to the programme after being kicked out. She knows that even if that candidate was admitted, it would be unlikely that they’d be selected for joining. And somehow that makes it easier, not harder, to talk about.

Her mother’s jaw drops, and her father looks at her with tears in his eyes. Apart from her great-grandfather’s funeral, she’s never seen him cry.

“I’m so proud of you,” he says.

“For being kicked out?” she asks, incredulously.

“For not giving up.”

***

The others talk about her. She’s the one who had to leave, before, but instead of hanging her head in shame she walks with pride. She’s back. She’s not giving up on a dream she’s had her whole life. She throws everything she has at the challenges in front of her.

By second year, a third of their group has already dropped out or been asked to leave.

There is never any doubt in anyone’s mind that Jadzia - still quiet, still shy, but with a determination running through her veins that few can rival - will make it through to the end of the initiate training.

***

Something cracks in her, at the last test. “What will you do if we deem you unsuitable for joining?” they ask. There are three interviewers from the Symbiosis Commission, two men and a woman.

And she wants to scream. Everything else, everything else in her life has been focused on becoming suitable. On proving herself suitable. She can look at a mathematical puzzle and solve it at warp speed. She sails through psychological tests, understanding not only the answers they’re looking for but also giving honest replies; she’s spent years striving to be the kind of person they want her to be.

Now this.

Is there a right answer for this?

Candidates need to want to be joined – need to want it so badly they will put themselves through this testing, so badly that they can, when the time comes, give up part of their medical rights to ensure that the symbiont can survive even if they do not.

“Can I think about it for a moment?” Jadzia asks, and one of the men nods.

She wonders if they’re asking her because they’ve already decided that she’s not a suitable host.

“It would have been a waste of time,” the other man prompts.

“No,” she says. “I’ve given everything I have to this programme. If you don’t think I’m suitable – ” She shrugs, and with that, a weight lifts from her shoulders. “We regret the things we don’t do,” she says. “Working for this – learning not to say no, not to stand down – that’s something I’m going to take with me for the rest of my life. Whether I’m joined or not.”

She looks at them all, and then out the window. “I’m going to be a scientist,” she says. “And I’m going to do whatever I can to regret as little as possible. That’s what I’ll do.”

“Whether you’re joined or not,” the woman says, eyeing her up.

Jadzia nods, and holds her gaze. The woman looks away first.

She walks out feeling freer than she has in years. Maybe ever.

She’s done all she can. She will not regret her training, whatever they decide. Now – now all she can do is live.