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Once Upon a Time

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Every night before she went to bed, Gaila wrote a letter home. She couldn't send it of course – she couldn't risk the bounty hunters finding her – but the illusion of sharing her thoughts made her feel a little less alone in the foreign world of the Academy. Her first letter complained that she only had one roommate, and she didn't know what Federation people did with all this space and privacy. The word 'space' translated neatly into Orion, but 'privacy' hovered on the screen in stubborn English. Orion had no word for a desire for solitude so strong that etiquette and ethics demanded that you observe it.

It's like secrets, Gaila wrote finally, but about ordinary things that everyone does and everyone understands. Her roommate kept underwear in a drawer, but Gaila wasn't supposed to look at it, much less use it, even if all of hers were dirty. Mating, defecating, having messy love affairs: they were things the whole galaxy had in common, but here she was supposed to pretend they didn't happen unless someone told her about them directly. Nor was she allowed to open drawers or closets looking for something she needed. Privacy also meant you could not see –much less use -- the collection of styluses in your roommate's desk drawer without asking permission first. Maybe you like privacy when you have so much space and so much property that you've never had to share, she wrote. She hoped that she wouldn't become miserly here. People said that word was old-fashioned, but it was the only one she could find with even a slightly pejorative meaning. In her language, the worst thing you could say about someone was that they refused to share.

“I don't really mind if you use my styluses,” Christine said very carefully on their third day of cohabitation. Gaila had been taking them from Christine's desk when she needed one; her Orion ones worked badly on the Starfleet padds, and until her refugee allowance arrived, she couldn't buy any new ones.

“Oh,” Gaila said. “Good.” On her world, calling attention to your generosity was just one step above being a miser.

Christine gritted her teeth, a sign of aggression common among meat-eating people, including Orions.

“I mean I don't mind if you use my styluses if you ask first.”

Gaila's mouth opened and shut. So Christine didn't consider them equals then. Gaila had been prepared for this; she was an escaped slave and a former prostitute, and before the refugee relocation center, she'd had little formal education. Still, she had hoped for better.

“May I use your stylus?” she asked. The words didn't actually get stuck in her throat, but it was a near thing.

Christine smiled beatifically.

“Yes, of course,” she said.

“Thank you very much,” Gaila responded even though Christine was already looking down at her padd. She went somewhere else to study that night. So what if her roommate had more than she did and wanted to remind her of it by making her ask for every little thing? She wasn't a slave, and she could go wherever she liked. Even with Christine's tiny stylus.

In the morning, Gaila stole a stylus from the supply store. She wasn't proud of it, but it was easy, and it spared her the need to ask Christine for any more special favors. Christine had many things that Gaila wanted, like smudgy black eyeliner, an operating hair dryer, and a smooth, creamy beverage called milk, but she had nothing that Gaila needed, and Gaila made sure to show her that by requesting nothing. Soon Christine would understand that having property wasn't the same thing as having power.

After a week of polite and frosty interactions, Christine sat down gingerly on Gaila's bed. Gaila looked at her askance, wondering if this was a violation of privacy that she ought to protest, but she didn't have the heart.

“I really offended you with the stylus thing, didn't I?” Christine said.

When Gaila said nothing, Christine rubbed the fourth finger of her left hand, where some humans wore a ring. Gaila couldn't understand the gesture, and Christine stopped abruptly when she saw Gaila watching.

“Listen, I'm really sorry. I'm new to this whole interspecies thing. If you could maybe give me a a little help to understand what I did wrong...”

Gaila studied Christine carefully. Her shoulders slumped a little, and though her head was lowered only slightly, she had to look up toward Gaila. It was not the body language one would use to address an inferior, and Gaila decided to trust her for the moment. She would determine Christine's sincerity for certain soon enough.

“I propose a compromise,” Gaila said, deliberately choosing language that would emphasize her fluency in formal English. “I have lived by your customs this week, and next week I would like you to live by mine.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Christine said. She looked hesitant but also curious. “You'll have to tell me what that means though.”

“Use all my stuff,” Gaila said. The statement seemed self-explanatory, but Christine looked baffled, so Gaila explained it more carefully. “If you want something of mine, you can use it. Uniforms, data chips, make-up, underwear, whatever you want. You can look for it in my drawers or my closet without asking, whether I'm here or not. I don't care. I still won't touch your stuff if you don't want me to, but anything on my side of the room might as well be yours.”

“I'm not even sure what to say,” Christine said. “That's incredibly generous of you.”

“No,” Gaila said. “It's normal.”

***

Trying to share with Christine makes me sad, Gaila wrote on her padd. She was still pretending it was a letter, even though she knew she'd never send it. Sometimes I see her looking at my lipstick or my shiny gold skirt like she wants them, but she never takes them. So far, she's only used a tiny dollop of my toothpaste and one of my paper clips. Both times, she'd started to ask for permission, then snapped her mouth shut hastily. Suddenly a terrible thought occurred to Gaila: what if Christine had grown up in a place where no one shared things? She tried to look at Christine's holos surreptitiously. She and her brother looked so happy together, but maybe she had never been allowed to take something without asking. Maybe she had even been disciplined for it. After that, Gaila made sure to leave her best lipstick and her prettiest earrings on Christine's nightstand so she'd understand no one would hurt her if she used them.

“What are you writing?” Christine asked after Gaila had completed her letter one night. Even though she was wearing pajamas, Gaila's earrings still dangled from her ears, and she kept tilting her head back and forth to listen to the strands of jewels clink together.

“It's a secret,” Gaila said, even though it actually wasn't. It made her feel vulnerable, so it was sheshecan, a fact which required the listener to share something equally personal in exchange. English didn't have a word for that, and Gaila wasn't sure what that meant about Christine's culture.

“Oh,” Christine breathed. Her expression suggested she was about to apologize. Gaila had seen that expression a lot since she explained about the sharing, and it made her feel bad for Christine but also good. She knew now that she had never meant to imply they were less than equal.

“Don't apologize,” Gaila said sharply. She hadn't meant to put up a barrier between herself and Christine; a roommate was as close as she could come to a sister here on Earth. “It's complicated...'Secret' isn't really the right word. If you were Orion, I would have told you it was sheshecan, and you would know that if you wanted me to answer the question, you'd have to share something personal too.”

“I'd do that,” Christine said, much faster than Gaila expected. But then, she was new here too; maybe she needed to deepen her personal connections.

“Okay.” Gaila took a deep breath. She wanted to share, but she didn't want to be pitied, and she didn't see how Christine, who had grown up with so much, would understand how little she had. “They're letters. But not really. Really it's a journal, which I guess is what humans call it when they write down thoughts they don't want to share. But I want to share them with people at home, except I can't. The Syndicate might use my transmissions to track me down, and maybe they couldn't get me here, but they could get revenge on my sisters for my escape.”

“So you're starting your whole life over here? All alone?” Christine asked.

Gaila shook her head.

“I'm not alone. I have myself.”

She held Christine's eyes, aware that she probably looked defiant. The trouble was, humans couldn't smell pheromones, and Gaila hadn't learned to mimic the right facial expressions yet. There was no way Christine could sense the layers of sadness and exhaustion beneath Gaila's pride.

Christine smiled ruefully.

“I ought to take a page out of your book.” She was rubbing the spot on her fourth finger again, and Gaila wished she knew what Christine meant by it. She hadn't seen that gesture in any catalog of human body language.

“Books are really valuable. You shouldn't tear them up,” Gaila said. She wasn't sure what take a page out of your book meant, but she'd decided it had a slightly hostile ring. Most of the books here were antiques.

Christine giggled, and Gaila realized she'd never heard her laugh before. Abruptly, she felt guilty; she had been so preoccupied with her own sadness that she hadn't considered her pretty, privileged roommate might not be happy.

“Not literally. I just meant that I should try to be more like you. More self-reliant.”

“It's a mixed blessing,” Gaila said. Her independence had saved her, but now that she was someplace safe, she wasn't sure how to let down her walls. “Why do you think you need to be more self-reliant?”

Christine was rubbing the spot on her finger again, the place where a ring should have been.

“I dumped my fiance to come here. That's not a secret though. The secret is why. He was cheating on me, over and over again, and I knew for the longest time but I didn't do anything about it.”

Gaila took her time responding. Marriage, monogamy, cheating – the terms didn't make much sense on her world, but she understood the etiquette of secret sharing. Judging Christine would have been wrong.

“Weren't you a little young to be getting married?” she asked finally. Her cultural communication tutor had told her that asking questions made her sound less judgmental.

Christine nodded ruefully.

“I suppose twenty-two was a bit young to be engaged. He was older though, a respected scientist, very handsome.”

“Very practical,” Gaila said, nodding. After her liberation, when she'd worked as a prostitute, some of her older, wealthier clients had offered her exclusive arrangements, sometimes even marriage. Though she'd never accepted them, she understood their value, and she supposed that if she came from a monogamous culture, she might have even made a match like Christine's. But Christine laughed.

“Oh, it wasn't practical at all. I guess I just thought he was my Prince Charming.”

“A what?” Gaila asked. The universal translation screen on her padd flickered, then suggested a high-ranking pirate with good manners and many slaves, but she doubted that was what Christine meant.

“It's kind of an old-fashioned term, I suppose. It's from an old story I loved as a child.” She looked up at Gaila, eyes bright for the first time since she'd spoken of her broken engagement. “Would you like to hear it?”

“Please,” Gaila said. “Tell me the stories of your people.” She knew Christine wouldn't recognize the ritual phrase, but Gaila couldn't resist saying it anyway. On Orion, meetings between two clans always began with an exchange of stories, even between slaves. She sat up straight and crossed her legs neatly beneath her in the correct posture for listening, and she hoped Christine could recognize her attentiveness.

“Once upon a time,” Christine said, and Gaila grinned. The phrase was new to her, but she could hear the ritual in it.

“A young mother died, leaving behind her husband and her small, beautiful daughter. The father was heartbroken but soon married a woman who had two daughters of her own. These daughters were beautiful on the outside but ugly within, and soon they forced the little girl to cook, clean, and do their bidding. At night, she slept in the ashes of the fireplace, and soon her stepsisters began calling her Cinderella.”

Gaila nodded. This story wasn't so different from her own people's, and though she wasn't happy to hear that slavery had once existed here, it was comforting to know that people suffered the same hardships all over the galaxy.

“When the girl was sixteen years old, a great prince announced that he would marry, and he invited all the young women to attend a ball at his palace,” Christine continued. “Of course, Cinderella's cruel stepsisters refused to allow her to attend.”

“Not surprising,” Gaila muttered, and Christine looked a little surprised. Gaila pressed her lips together firmly, promising silence. Perhaps it was rude to interrupt a human's story.

Fortunately, Christine seemed unruffled by her comment. “Anyway, when all the sisters had gone, Cinderella wept in the corner, certain she would never escape her servitude. Then, who should appear but her fairy godmother?”

Christine looked quite gleeful now, so Gaila nodded eagerly to encourage her. She had no idea what a fairy godmother was, but she didn't want to risk interrupting again, so she kept her smile frozen in place as the story grew more and more bizarre. Cinderella, who apparently wasn't clever enough to sew her own clothes or make her own escape, received clothing and a coach from her mysterious benefactor. Of course, now Cinderella was beholden to this 'fairy godmother,' so she was forced to follow inexplicable commandments, like returning home from the ball at midnight when she obviously should have stayed longer to solidify her hold on the prince. Gaila forced herself to wait patiently so she could hear how this Cinderella extricated herself from her thoughtless bargain.

“And as they danced, Prince Charming fell madly in love with Cinderella, and when she vanished from the ball at midnight, he was so distraught he sent all his men to look for her,” Christine continued, and Gaila felt her smile begin to fade. Poor Cinderella, to think that the prince would still love her after finding out that she was a slave – if he had ever loved her at all, that was. She waited uneasily for Cinderella to discover the truth. It would be sad, no doubt, but also the start of her journey to wisdom.

“And then they lived happily ever after. The end,” Christine said. She looked up at Gaila. “What do you think?”

Gaila furrowed her brow, an expression her communications tutor had said indicated confusion.

“The purpose of this story is not to educate your children?” Gaila asked.

Christine cocked her head. “I suppose maybe it was, once. Now I think it's just to entertain. Do you like it?”

Gaila snorted, not caring that it was impolite. How foolish of her to believe this culture had stories about anyone like her.

“No,” she said. “Cinderella was stupid.” She didn't even bother to look at Christine before she began to dissect all of Cinderella's mistakes. “One, after all those years of servitude, did she not know how to ride her own horse or make her own gown? How could she not understand the danger of being beholden to some magical creature she'd never even met before? And to believe that the Prince would ever love someone of her station... She was a sexual novelty, sure, and she could have played that to her advantage. But he was always going to leave her for someone else in the end, and she was stupid to believe it.'”

“Right. Glad to know your opinion,” Christine said, and though Gaila wasn't entirely adept at understanding American English intonations, she had a feeling Christine didn't mean what she had said.

***

“I think I really pissed off my roommate,” Gaila said, flopping down in one of the overstuffed chairs in Cochrane Lounge. Then she paused. “'Pissed off' means angry in American English, right? And pissed means drunk in Britain?”

Her communications tutor nodded, making her long green earrings bob.

“That's right,” Nyota said. “Now tell me what you did.”

She was smiling, even though she was trying hard to look disapproving. Nyota was pretty and too serious, and Gaila could tell she got a vicarious thrill when someone else stepped out of line.

“She told me this story about a girl who was enslaved by her family and then someone gave her a free dress and glass shoes, so a prince married her.”

Nyota wrinkled her nose.

“Cinderella? I hate that story.”

“You do?” Gaila asked. “Why?”

She wondered if Nyota would hate it for the same reasons that she did, and whether it would make her feel better if she did.

“Well, it's silly. Love doesn't happen that way. You don't dance with some guy once and then he loves you forever.”

“Is that all?” Gaila asked, feeling disappointed. Surely she wasn't the only one who noticed what was really wrong with the story.

“No, that's not all, although I think it's one of the most influential problems with the story. This thing has been around for centuries, and it just won't die, and it convinces people to pursue this fairy tale love that doesn't exist. But it also says that if you're in a bad spot, you can get out of it without standing up for yourself. Suffering for a long time doesn't make anyone free.”

Gaila nodded, satisfied. Maybe Nyota wasn't a slave, but at least she understood Gaila's point.

“So why is this story even popular?”

Nyota shrugged her shoulders.

“Tradition, I suppose. And the ideas in it are appealing, even if they're overly simplistic. It's all about transforming, falling in love, an getting justice without doing any work.” She frowned. “I think a lot of people like the idea that some Prince or Princess Charming is going to come and sweep them off their feet. Don't you have stories like that on your world?”

Gaila shook her head.

“My people tell children stories they can learn from. How to work hard, who to trust.”

She didn't add that 'her people' meant 'slaves,' even though she was sure that Nyota knew. She wasn't ready for that kind of conversation yet.

“So what would your Cinderella story sound like?” Nyota asked.

“Good question,” Gaila said. “I think the beginning would be the same, about the girl's mother dying and her stepsisters making her slaves. But there wouldn't be a fairy godmother, maybe just a powerful woman who liked to piss people off by secretly hiring slaves. So Cinderella would go to work for her, after she was done with her family's chores of course, and even though she'd be exhausted, she'd save up the credits for the dress and the shoes. At the ball, she'd have to tread carefully because she'd probably get executed if someone realized that she was a slave, but she'd play her cards right and the prince would take her as a concubine. She'd know that her time there was limited – rich, powerful men always get over their infatuations quickly – so she'd sneak around the palace, learning the clan's secrets, until she had something so good she could bargain for passage off world. She would've stolen enough jewelery to pay someone to smuggle her into the Federation, and she wouldn't live happily ever after because that would be boring. She'd stay single and independent and pick her own adventures, and she'd know she could survive anything because she'd already survived slavery.”

Nyota looked at her carefully. “Is that story true?”

“No.”

“But you wish it were? You like it better than what happens in reality?”

“Yes,” Gaila said. “Absolutely.”

***

“Sometimes I like stories that aren't true too,” Gaila said when she came back from her tutoring session.

Christine was stretched out flat on her bed, styluses and nursing articles spread around her.

“Don't worry about it, Gaila,” she said. “It was a stupid story.”

“Well, yeah.” There was no use pretending otherwise. “But I think I might have suggested that you were stupid for liking it.”

Christine rolled over, scooting her homework aside.

“Yeah, I think I kind of took it that way.” She twisted a few strands of hair around her finger, looking thoughtful. “I just really wanted to believe, you know? Roger was so charming when I met him, and we hit it off right away...I just assumed it would be that way forever. Then, when I realized how bad it was, I didn't want to admit how stupid I'd been, so I just stuck it out, which made me feel stupider. You get the picture.”

“Yeah. I know sticking with people longer than you should,” Gaila said. Admitting her own idiocy made her feel strangely lighter, like maybe she'd come a step closer to forgiving herself.

“Oh?” Christine asked.

“Yeah,” Gaila said. “When I heard your story, I knew exactly what I wanted to happen. I wanted Cinderella to come up with some cunning plan to get herself away from there. I even made up another version where she stole secrets from the prince and bargained her way to freedom before he got tired of her. And you know why? Because it's exactly the opposite of what I did.”

Christine had gone very quiet, but her eyes were locked on Gaila. She didn't know what to say, which was why Gaila hated telling her story, but at least she was willing to listen. That was enough.

“I was like Cinderella. I just worked, and sometimes I thought about a better life, but I didn't do anything to make it happen. Then one day, there was this huge party, clans from all over, and I was out in the hangar deck polishing up the ships. The nav access codes weren't even a secret; they just counted on us being too afraid to escape – and they were right. Nobody even talked about leaving when I was there. Suddenly I realized that everyone was too busy to miss me, and I just took a one-person craft and flew away. We were on a border planet, so I didn't even have to go too far to escape. And now, when I look back on it, I can't believe how stupid I was. I gave up so many years of my life, and I could have flown away so easily if I had spared a single thought for my freedom.”

Christine opened her mouth, but Gaila glared her into silence. She didn't want to hear I'm so sorry or don't judge yourself so harshly.

“Don't try to make me feel better about myself,” she said, trying to soften her voice to take the edge out of her glare. “It's inexcusable, how badly I betrayed myself.”

Christine nodded.

“I understand. I mean, as much as I can. What happened between me and Roger is nothing like what happened to you, but I know what you mean about not being able to forgive yourself. What I did to myself by staying with him is so much worse than anything he did to me.”

She lay back on her bed, looking contemplative, and Gaila noticed for the first time that a holographic star chart was pinned to the ceiling. The stars twinkled and glowed, and Gaila imagined a starship sailing between them.

“You know what?” Christine said, still staring at the little stars on the ceiling. “We're going to be up there soon, and nothing in our pasts is going to change that.” She turned to look at Gaila. “Maybe we both trapped ourselves, but I think what matters is that we got free in the end.”

***

On the last day of their first year, Gaila printed two copies of her unsent letters, one for her communications tutor and one for Christine. She even used the paper in Christine's desk without asking, which was okay now. On top of Christine's bundle of letters, she wrote a story on a small white card: Once upon a time, two women from very different worlds were forced to live together. At first, they did not know they were the same because they kept their secrets and their sadness to themselves. Slowly, they began to share their possessions and their stories, and they realized they were sisters after all. They did not live happily ever after, but only because they knew having wild adventures together was much more fun.