Chapter One: The Rules
Disclaimer: I make no money here; it's all for love.
"Commander, a word?"
Cadet Uhura stands in the office doorway, her hands at her side, one foot ahead of the other, like someone facing a brisk headwind.
Which, Spock thinks, might be an apt metaphor. He tamps down his annoyance and blanks his expression.
"Office hours are over for the day," he says, turning slightly in his chair and looking back at his computer monitor on his desk. The cadet, however, either doesn't hear the note of dismissal in his voice or chooses to ignore it. Chooses to ignore it, most likely. In the six weeks that he's known her, he's seen this force of will from her in several in-class arguments.
Nothing unpleasant. Nothing even inappropriate. But unexpected.
Only the seniors in his advanced computer programming seminar speak as freely, ask as many questions—but with such deference and hesitation that he struggles not to become impatient with them.
The underclassmen in his lecture classes such as the xenolinguistics course the cadet is taking almost never raise a hand, rarely request clarification about anything, offer few answers unless called on directly. The dean had baffled him once by calling his attention to it, telling him to be more accessible. In response he had doubled his posted office hours.
"Not exactly what I had in mind," Dean Baker said, but then she never said what she did have in mind. Spock chalked it up to some ineffable quality that human students looked for in their professors and found missing in him. He wasn't concerned.
"They are," Cadet Uhura says, "and yet you are still here. I won't take long."
A rustle of fabric, the minute squeak of the chair situated next to his desk as Cadet Uhura perches on its edge. Spock looks up, ready to make sure his dismissal is unmistakable this time.
To his surprise, the cadet is arched forward, her fingertips curved along the desktop, her ponytail spilling over one shoulder. He leans away.
"Really," she says, her face screwed into a frown, "I won't keep you. I just wanted to ask you to reconsider the late penalty."
Her comment is as disappointing as it is irritating—and when the cadet narrows her eyes, he knows he has let his emotions slip. He blinks and slows his breathing.
"As I explained in class today," he says with exaggerated care, "the syllabus is clear. All papers are due in my mail queue by 0100 on the scheduled day. Late work is not accepted."
Her eyes flash as he speaks. She's angry? He's done nothing but remind her of the rules. He tells her so.
"Perhaps you are unaware," she says, her tone matching his, "that the little tremor in the Bay Area last night knocked the Academy generator offline. My dorm didn't have power until right before class this morning."
"I did know," he says. Cadet Uhura sits upright so quickly that Spock surmises his answer has caught her off guard. Indeed, her next words confirm it.
"You knew the network was down? That it was impossible to send the papers to you at 0100?"
"The syllabus does not say that papers must be sent at 0100. As long as the papers were in the queue by 0100, they met the deadline."
"But the network was down before that!"
"So you said."
"It wasn't possible to send papers while the network was down! Through no fault of their own, students were prevented from meeting the deadline. Your penalty isn't fair!"
"It was possible to send papers before the network went down. Those students who did so met the deadline."
"Are you being deliberately dense?"
Her question is so provocative, so borderline disrespectful, that he blinks. Twice.
"Cadet," he says at last, "I fail to see how this concerns you at all. Your own paper was one of the first ones turned in. As I recall, you sent it 26 hours, 15 minutes, 33 seconds before it was due."
With a visible and audible whump, Cadet Uhura sits back in the chair.
When she speaks, her voice is oddly small, constrained, wary.
"How do you know that?"
"You dispute it?"
"No, no," she says, tripping uncharacteristically over her words. "I…no, I know I turned it in early. I didn't think…."
She lowers her eyes as her words grow fainter, drifting off into air.
With a start, Spock realizes that he is staring at her. Usually she is at a distance, one of 53 students sitting in angled chairs in the small amphitheater in the language building, almost indistinguishable from any other red-uniformed cadet.
This close, he can see her features so clearly that he has trouble looking away.
The way one tendril of hair has slipped loose from her hair band, falling forward over her ear. The late morning light from the window casting an interesting shadow along the line of her jaw.
"That doesn't change anything," she says, darting a glance at his face, her voice still strangely confined, like someone speaking from a great distance. "It isn't fair to all the students who tried to mail their papers on time. It's the principle of the thing."
With a fluid motion, he reaches forward and toggles off the computer monitor. He feels her watching him, knows somehow that she will recognize that he is giving her his full attention out of his respect for her intellect.
"Cadet," he says, not unkindly, "your concern for your fellow classmates is commendable. But the rule is the rule."
Her intake of breath, her quick brush of her hand to her face signal some resolve that escapes him. Surely he's been as clear as he can be.
"Sir," she says, placing her hands flat on the desk. His eyes flick down and away. "You made the rule and you can change it. It has no authority except your own. You are being unnecessarily legalistic when you imply the rule can't be changed because it is a rule. In fact, that isn't even logical."
He looks up then, undecided about whether to let the unnamed emotion roiling in his side bloom into real anger at her insult.
"I meant no offense," she says, a hint of a smile at the corner of her lips.
"None taken," he says by force of habit, but to his amazement, he realizes it is true.
A revelation then: whatever he is feeling, it isn't anger.
"After all," she says, and he recognizes that he is staring again, measuring his understanding of her words against the expression flickering across her features, "I'm not asking you to change the rule, just to acknowledge an unusual circumstance. To show mercy when you could mete out justice, so to speak."
She laughs lightly then, and Spock says, "Though none of your classmates have asked for any."
The rest of her sentence wavers unspoken between them. He hears her take a breath.
"I mean," she stumbles, "it's just that some people find it hard to—"
Again she lets her words grind to a halt.
Be more accessible, Dean Baker had said.
How hard it is—breaching this space between himself and others.
For a long time he had thought this particular loneliness was unique to him, had privately nursed his resentments toward the Vulcan school children who singled him out for ridicule, had placed his confusion and sadness at the feet of his mother and father, never with direct accusations, but quietly, making them aware of the slights he suffered at school, thinking they weren't aware.
But of course they had known. Had argued with each other over how to respond. Had let his difficulties color their feelings for each other.
He wishes now that he had been more careful.
"I agree," he says, "that the loss of power made meeting the deadline more challenging."
"Made it impossible," she quips, and he replies, "Not for you, remember?"
"My memory isn't as good as yours," she says, lifting her eyes to his.
To his surprise she flushes—tiny beads of perspiration appearing across her cheeks, dampening the errant curls of hair along her neck.
For a moment the air in the small office is heavy, hot, still.
"My mother makes the same complaint."
Now it is his turn to flush. He's frankly astonished at himself, at blurting out something so personal, so unwarranted. Placing his hands on the arms of his chair, he prepares to stand, to make some excuse about needing to leave immediately.
But before he can, Cadet Uhura says, "You must have reminded her of things she wanted to forget."
The honesty of her comment gives him pause.
"I'll bet you have some interesting stories about your mother," she adds, and he says, quietly, "Indeed."
"Commander," Cadet Uhura says into the sudden silence, "I'm heading to the cafeteria for something to drink. You wouldn't care to join me, would you?"
Actually, he wouldn't. The cafeteria is noisy, crowded, not a place he frequents by choice. He waits a moment too long to answer and the cadet gives a brisk, artificial smile and says, "I'm sorry! I know you are busy."
And just like that, Spock has what he's scoffed at more than once—something so close to an out-of-body experience or a schizophrenic episode that later that night he dwells on it for an hour sitting cross-legged before his asenoi.
"If you like," he hears himself utter, like watching himself in a dream, "I can make tea for both of us in the break room. There is one story about my mother that you might find relevant."
Before she noticed the saffron-colored sky or the mint-green sand beneath her feet, Amanda was aware of the smells. Musky, herbal, spicy—drafts of different aromas as she picked her way across the path from the space tarmac to the low-ceiling building where the aOpli officials waited.
She walked, as was expected, several yards behind Sarek—a Vulcan tradition she had accepted reluctantly, and only because she knew that it didn't reflect some latent sexism but evolved from ancient times when couples traveled this way for safety across the desert—the larger males out front to scout for wild sehlats or lematyas.
It had its advantage even now. Watching Sarek from behind was still a pleasure, even after five years of marriage. For such a broad-shouldered man, he was surprisingly graceful—stepping boldly across this new world. Through their bond she felt his quiet confidence and she smiled for both of them.
As the junior ambassador attached to Somak, the ambassador to the Alpha quadrant, Sarek spent more than half his time traveling—sometimes alone but more often on mission junkets serving as Somak's secretary. While the time apart could be a challenge, Amanda also found it necessary. Indeed, her life on Vulcan was so full with her work—teaching languages in the local school, tutoring adults who wanted to improve their Standard, volunteering in the community civic organizations—not to mention her friendships with two of her neighbors and the occasional babysitting she did for their children—that she sometimes joked that she wouldn't know what to do if she had a husband underfoot all the time.
Or at least, that's how she had felt before she lost two babies.
Miscarriages, midway through her pregnancies, a girl and a boy, both perfectly formed, both conceived naturally.
For months she had grieved, unwilling to believe the healers who said medical intervention would be necessary to create a viable fetus and carry it to term. The idea that she and Sarek could be so deeply connected, so viscerally a part of each other, and not be able to have children was hard to accept.
Her sister, Cecilia, was a pediatrician and had suggested adoption, but Amanda resisted that idea, too.
When Sarek assured her that he was willing to do whatever was necessary, either on Vulcan or Earth, Amanda was aware that her reaction was irrational—her initial anger misplaced, her sense of betrayal completely at odds with the very real loss she knew he felt. Of course he wasn't suggesting that the children she lost could be replaced. Still, one night she lashed out at him at supper when he had casually suggested they consult a new geneticist. After that, he had stopped asking.
And then a few weeks ago she recognized that she had turned some sort of emotional corner when she held her neighbor's new baby and felt none of the old jealousy or sorrow. She told Sarek that night that she was ready to try again.
For months he had been inundated with late hours and extra work doing the pre-negotiations for a new trade deal with the aOpli. The trade items were of less value than the strategic position of the planet, halfway between Vulcan and the Romulan Neutral Zone. An outpost—or at the very least, a trigger buoy—could be established to keep better tabs on Romulan movement. When he came home to Amanda's announcement, he made what for him sounded like an impulsive decision.
"Come with me," he told her as they ate their evening meal.
"On the trade mission?" Amanda asked, choking on a spoon of thick shur. "What about my job? My students?"
"Take a leave of absence," Sarek said, the light in his eyes betraying his enthusiasm. Instead of dismissing his suggestion out of hand, Amanda said she would consider it, but before she went to bed, she had already made up her mind. A trip off planet! The excitement of seeing someplace new, someplace not associated with sadness, appealed to her as much as the chance to be with Sarek—even though he would be busy for much of the time in meetings. If nothing else, the journey to aOpli and back would give them an opportunity to talk, to be able to look up and see each other sitting close enough to reach out and touch.
The next day she told the director of the school that she needed time off—and the director had nodded and signed the release without a word.
Whatever she had imagined the aOpli people would be like, they exceeded her expectations. Tall and willowy, from a distance they reminded her of walking trees, their arms no bigger around than the thickest part of her thumb. Instead of fingers they had gauzy, frilly tendrils that were in constant motion, like sea grass undulating in an invisible ocean current.
Their heads and faces were more typically humanoid, with large, deepset eyes and an expressive mouth. Sarek had shown her pictures of the aOpli official he had communicated with most, and as she picked her way across the sand, Amanda thought she recognized him—or her. No one was quite sure what, if any, gender the aOpli had.
"Sarek, we meet as planned," Amanda heard the aOpli say, the universal translator changing a series of clicks and whistles into oddly-accented Vulcan. Sarek inclined his head and raised his hand in the Vulcan salute.
"We come to serve."
"And Ambassador Somak?"
"He was delayed by personal illness. The healers expect a quick recovery, but as you and I have some preliminary work to do before our supervisors sign the trade agreement, I came as planned."
The repetition of the phrase "as planned" by both Sarek and the aOpli caught Amanda's attention. Although little was known of this species, their insistence on detailed planning, their reluctance to stray from accepted protocol, was noteworthy.
"A good thing the Federation asked the Vulcans to do the trade negotiations," Amanda had said months ago when Sarek was assigned to the mission. "You two have lots in common."
"Unfortunate," the aOpli said, its tendrils waving in what Amanda assumed was a gesture of sympathy or distress. With a sudden motion, the tall creature turned and ducked into the nearest opening of the building, the Vulcans following suit.
Once inside, the trade delegation was shepherded into a large reception room and Amanda was escorted to her quarters by an aOpli much shorter than the one who had spoken.
"Thank you," Amanda said as the aOpli circled the small room, moving its arms from one object to another before moving back to the door. Like a bellboy explaining the functions of the room, Amanda realized with a start.
"Thank you so much," she said again, but the aOpli either didn't understand her or chose not to respond. In another moment Amanda was alone.
She barely had time to unpack her travel bag when Sarek was at the door, his face flushed, his breathing forced in the way that indicated he was angry.
"What happened?" she said, dropping her bag to the sleeping platform.
"They will not speak with me," Sarek said, his eyes flashing. "Their rules do not allow them to converse with non-sentient creatures."
"Non-sentient creatures? What are you talking about?"
But instead of speaking further, through their bond Sarek showed her the aOpli diplomat, let her hear the strange hiss and snap and the translated words—it is against our rules to communicate directly with non-sentients. You have misled us.
I don't understand, Amanda said wordlessly, and she winced as Sarek's fury rolled over her like a wave.
"Apparently," he said, catching his breath and sitting heavily on the sleeping platform, "we have failed some litmus test for sentience."
"But you've been in communication for months! Why let you come all this way if they weren't going to negotiate? Oh, this is ridiculous! They know you are sentient."
Squinting into the middle distance, Sarek said, "Something has convinced them otherwise."
For a wild moment Amanda worried that her presence might have confused the aOpli. After all, the rest of the delegation were Vulcans, all of them part of the official embassy. She was the odd one out on both counts.
Sensing her unease, Sarek turned his gaze to her.
"This has nothing to do with you. Something in our appearance seemed to offend them."
"Maybe the translator was faulty," Amanda said, settling herself on the platform beside Sarek. "Or maybe the aOpli are sensitive to telepathy. I remember your telling me about the Znang people—how the telepathic thoughts of others caused them physical pain."
Sarek leaned forward and rested his bent elbows on his knees, steepling his hands under his chin.
"Perhaps," he said skeptically, "though we are using the same translation program that we used in our earlier communications with them, so it seems unlikely that it is at fault. Something that was not evident in our subspace transmissions is triggering their reaction now."
"Then it could be the telepathy," Amanda said. Sarek shook his head slowly.
"I've felt no one trying to access my thoughts," he said. "If the aOpli are sensitive, they themselves are psi null, and that would be unprecedented."
"Your clothes. They might be considered scandalously flimsy," Amanda suggested, a hint of teasing in her voice. More than once she had complained about the weight and heft of traditional Vulcan robes.
Sarek's mood lightened momentarily and he cut his eyes at her to let her know he was being chaffed.
"Whatever it is, if I cannot ascertain it and correct it, this will be a very short visit."
At the time Amanda had been certain that a solution was close at hand, but the next few days were a fruitless series of trials and errors. Sarek approached one official and then another, altering his apparel, his body language, his words of greeting. Each time he was met with either silence or a comment about not being permitted to talk to non-sentient beings.
"It is our law," an especially tall official told him late in the afternoon of the third day. "When you become sentient, return and we can continue."
"Then you do not oppose the trade agreement," Sarek said, and the aOpli waved its arms and shuffled away.
That night the Vulcans met in Sarek's room and discussed whether to continue their efforts.
"Somak is scheduled to arrive in seventeen hours," one of the younger Vulcans said. "Coming here would be an inefficient use of his time."
"That is uncertain," the engineer, T'Lana, said. "Somak may be successful where Sarek has failed."
From her seat in the corner, Amanda let loose a ripple of indignation and saw Sarek recoil slightly. Abashed that she had distracted him, she tamped down her annoyance.
"I will leave that determination to Somak," Sarek said. "He has been apprised of the situation here. If we cannot get the aOpli to move forward with negotiations by midday tomorrow, we are recalled."
His words were an adjournment. In a few minutes, he and Amanda were the only ones left in the room.
"It's probably a simple misunderstanding," Amanda said, "and we'll all laugh about it when we get back home. That is, I'll laugh."
This time her attempt at lightening Sarek's mood did nothing but highlight how quietly distraught he was. He begged off accompanying her to the food preparation room the aOpli had set up for them at the end of the hall, and with one rueful look back, Amanda set off to make herself something to eat before she got too tired.
And she was tired. While Sarek and the Vulcans had been tying themselves into knots trying to discover the source of the miscommunication, she had spent three days wandering through what she assumed was the capital city. Most of the buildings were low and nondescript like the one where the delegation was being housed, though she had seen a cluster of larger buildings in the city center.
If there was a pattern or grid that determined where buildings and waterways were placed, Amanda couldn't discern it. Instead, the city felt jumbled, hodge-podge, like a random assortment of oddly-shaped boxes. Several times she was lost and tried to get directions from a passerby, but though she garnered what she assumed were quizzical looks from the people she stopped, no one spoke to her or did more than make vague gestures with their long, fronded appendages.
Although Sarek had reassured her that the atmospheric pressure and gravity on the aOpli homeworld were close to Vulcan's, she was particularly tired when she finally found her way back that afternoon. The heat, too, had started to bother her, a surprise after years of living in a desert climate.
Something cool to drink, then, and some of the native fruit she had tried earlier.
As she headed down the hall she passed a short aOpli going in the other direction. The same one who had shown her to her room when they first arrived? She couldn't tell. Sarek had told her that if the aOpli had names or other personal designations, none had ever felt the need to share them with him. Perhaps they had some other way of recognizing and addressing each other.
"Good evening," she said automatically, not expecting an answer, passing on down the hall.
Behind her she heard the aOpli stop. A quick shuffle, a tap on her shoulder—and to her astonishment, when she turned around, the aOpli said, "Do you require anything?"
She stuttered that she was going to get something to drink and eat and the aOpli's large eyes widened, its arms tracing a circle in the air.
"May I join you?"
Completely flustered, Amanda nodded, and then to make sure she was understood, she added, "Yes, of course!"
Walking beside the aOpli, Amanda cautioned a glance and was rewarded with an unmistakable grin.
What was going on?
Did the aOpli harbor some racism for Vulcans but exempted her from their refusal to communicate? That seemed unlikely. She remembered her first night there—the silence as the aOpli had shown her to her room.
She wracked her brain for what could have changed in so short a time. During her exploration of the city she had come across a small open-air market and had sampled some fragrant skin salves on display. Was it possible that she had accidentally discovered the source of the aOpli's objection—some off-worlder odor that needed to be masked? Certainly the planet was rich in natural smells. Amanda recalled her own strong reaction to them when she first arrived.
If she could find out—maybe by questioning this friendly aOpli? She pictured T'Lana's face, heard again her pointed comment—Somak may be successful where Sarek has failed. If she could put a dent in that smug Vulcan hubris...
After picking through the assortment of fruit in the containment bin, she sat in one of the low-slung chairs in the food preparation room. The aOpli picked up a different fruit and sat in the chair nearest Amanda.
For a few moments they both busied themselves with peeling back the tough outer shell to the pulp inside, the aOpli using its feathery fronds like fingers. Taking a tiny nip of the fruit, Amanda said, "This is delicious. What's it called?"
The aOpli paused.
"I do not understand your query."
"The name," Amanda said. "What is the name of this fruit?"
"It is one of the things that we eat."
"Yes, I know that," Amanda said, trying not to sound impatient. "I wanted to know what you call it."
"We do not call it. We eat it."
Suppressing a little sigh, Amanda tried again.
"How do you distinguish between this," she said, lifting the fruit up, "and that," she said, pointing to the fruit the aOpli was holding.
Again the aOpli paused.
"We have no need to distinguish between them. We eat them both."
Now whose hubris was showing? This time she did sigh.
"I'm Amanda," she said. "What's your name?"
Instead of answering, the aOpli set the fruit down on the table and slowly raised its arms, the fronds spread wide as if to sift the air. As the aOpli moved, Amanda smelled something like nutmeg or cinnamon.
In a few moments the aOpli lowered its arms and said, "You use words I do not understand, and yet you are sentient. Is it the nature of your species to assign words this way?"
"You mean give names to things? Yes, it is our nature. I take it is not yours."
"It may be," the aOpli said. "I am newly sentient and have not learned all that I will know."
"What do you mean, that you are newly sentient?"
The smell of nutmeg and cinnamon drifted to Amanda's nose as the aOpli leaned forward.
"My lifeforce has begun," the aOpli said. "As has yours."
"And this lifeforce is what makes you sentient?"
"I'm confused," Amanda said, finishing the last nibble of her fruit. "Perhaps we are defining sentience differently. To my people, sentience is the ability to think, to know oneself, to reflect on the world."
"To us also," the aOpli said. Amanda sat back, nonplussed.
"But some of your people have refused to speak to us because they say we are not sentient."
"The others who are with you are not sentient."
"But you said," Amanda said, biting back her frustration, "that the aOpli believe that living creatures are sentient. Surely you can see that the others are alive."
"They do not carry a lifeforce as you do."
"You mean, they are Vulcans."
"No," the aOpli said, the universal translator rendering its words slightly louder, slightly harder. "They have no lifeforce. They are empty."
"I don't understand—"
Waving its arms, the aOpli said, "The problem is that I am newly sentient. Someone whose lifeforce is closer to completion may understand your questions better. If you require it, I can find someone else."
"You mean find someone older? Because you are a...young person?"
"Many younger than I am have carried a lifeforce to completion. But if you prefer, I can seek someone older than I am. Some of the very oldest have carried a lifeforce more than once. They may have the answers you want."
But all at once there it was, the key. Amanda's sudden intake of breath startled the aOpli, who sat up straight and held its arms by its side.
Cautiously, Amanda said, "This lifeforce? You said you carry it to completion. What happens after that?"
"We liberate it. It has its own life then, one apart from us."
"Ah," Amanda said, "so that's where little aOpli come from! You're saying you're pregnant. That you carry a new life inside you! That's the same for us!"
"Yes, I know," the aOpli said. "Your scent has changed. Your lifeforce is awake. Now that you are sentient, you surely are aware."
"And that's how your mother found out she was expecting you!" Nyota says, fidgeting with the handle of her empty tea cup.
"Her pregnancy wasn't confirmed until much later, once she and my father returned to Vulcan. The aOpli may have been mistaken."
"Or maybe not," Nyota says, her voice almost playful. Without asking, Spock refills her cup and then refreshes his own.
"Of course," he says, "they did not return home right away. She first had to negotiate the trade agreement."
"Did you say she?"
He looks over at the cadet and sips his tea, an unaccustomed contentment making him linger over the telling of the story.
"The aOpli refused to talk to anyone else in the delegation. By their legal definition, my mother was the only sentient being among them."
When she laughs, Cadet Uhura throws her head back and flashes her teeth, her ponytail swinging from side-to-side, her eyes shuttered for a moment. Spock uses that moment of her unguarded attention to examine the sweep of her neck, a tiny mole gracing the corner of her jaw.
"But you haven't told me everything," she says, and for a fleeting moment he feels exposed. "Were all of the aOpli females? Has anyone ever catalogued their language? I'd love to see what the linguists have found out."
Tilting his head, Spock says, "Their language has not been extensively researched. As far as anyone can tell, the aOpli have no gender but reproduce through a spontaneous cloning process. Only pregnant aOpli seem to have the cognitive ability to communicate in any complex way, and their cultural taboos keep them from communicating with non-pregnant beings. That lessens the odds considerably for meaningful interaction."
"Oh, I don't know," the cadet says, grinning, "your mother managed to get around those rules."
Sipping the last of her tea, she sets the cup down on the table with a noticeable clink, the noise both surprising and embarrassing her. She flushes and looks up.
"I didn't mean to take up so much of your time," she says, scooting back her chair and getting to her feet. "Thank you for the tea and the story."
As she makes her way to the door of the break room, Spock stands and says, "I will send out a notice extending the deadline. This time, at least, we can bend the rules."
Pausing at the door, she turns and smiles.
"Thank you, sir."
The word echoes in the room after she is gone. He adds the pain he feels on hearing it to the list of things he has to meditate on tonight.
Or perhaps he should call his mother instead. She'll be suspicious at first if he does, their scheduled subspace calls on the weekends arranged well in advance.
But she'll be happy, too, something he doesn't often allow himself to acknowledge.
Her extensive experience as a teacher—surely she will have advice for how to be more accessible to his students without drifting into something too familiar, something skating on the edge of impropriety, something more than what the dean had in mind.
Not that he'll ask her directly, nor tell her details that even now he doesn't articulate to himself.
Like how he found himself sharing such a personal story with a cadet—something that he won't let happen again.
A/N: Here we go! When you comment or leave kudos, you make the writing worthwhile!