Nyota liked her roommate just fine until she met her.
She'd been at Starfleet Academy for less than a day: just long enough to enroll, collect her brand new cadet reds, download a vast amount of orientation material to her personal data pad, and then wander around the campus for most of the afternoon, experiencing a tiny thrill every time her freshly issued ID gave her access to a new building, library or lab. Exploring turned out to be so much fun that it wasn't until the crowds had thinned out and the sun was dipping below the Golden Gate Bridge that Nyota realized the only place she hadn't been yet was her dorm room.
She sat down on the steps of Ji Hall and thumbed on her data pad, scrolling through pages of documentation to find her room assignment. Starfleet Academy had adopted the practice of naming its student residences after great individuals in the histories of the Federation's founding members, and so Nyota was going to spend the next four years living in Surak with a cadet called Gaila Uhu from Orion.
The last detail made Nyota blink. Orion wasn't a member of the Federation; although officially neutral, its continued practice of slavery and sentient-trafficking meant that political relations were cool at best. Growing up in Nairobi, one of the largest centers of population on the African continent, Nyota had interacted with, or at least seen, representatives of literally hundreds of different species. But she couldn't remember ever meeting... her train of thought stuttered to a halt as she realized she didn't even know the right word to use for an Orion native. An Orionite? Orioner?
Well, she decided, that could be the first thing she asked to break the ice. And later, when they'd gotten to know each other a little better, Gaila would tell Nyota why she'd chosen Starfleet instead of whatever the Orion equivalent organization was, and soon it'd feel like they'd known each other forever. It was going to be weird, Nyota thought, sharing a room with someone for the first time in her life, but she was sure she'd get used to it, and already she could picture the two of them borrowing each others' clothes and supporting each other through exam crises. She smiled at the idea, then stood up, dusted herself down, and set off briskly across the campus.
The dorm, when she got there, was quiet; most of the students had moved in earlier in the day, and had already left for parties and mixers organized by their departments. But the indicator panel next to the door of room 364.3 was glowing green, which meant—according to the Academy Student Guide—that there was someone inside, but visitors were free to enter. Maybe, Nyota thought, Gaila had decided to wait until she met her roommate before heading out to whatever social event the Engineering faculty was hosting that night. It was a friendly gesture, and Nyota decided they were going to get along just fine.
Then she walked into the room.
Two naked people—one male and pink, one female and green—were enthusiastically having sex on one of the two beds.
For a second, Nyota just stared. It was hard to do anything except stare; the tiny portion of her brain still functioning seemed to have determined that the aspect of the situation most urgently requiring analysis was how exactly Gaila (it had to be—who else could the naked green woman be?) had gotten her legs to bend like that. Because, wow, that was one hell of an obtuse angle.
"Fuck," Nyota said at last. She didn't swear often, but this instance hardly counted, she supposed, since technically it was a statement of fact.
Gaila turned her head, and saw Nyota for the first time. Instead of looking embarrassed or even faintly perturbed, she smiled brightly. "Oh," she said, between short, shallow gasps, "You must—uh—be Nyota—oh—we'll be done—ah, ah—in a second, oh, oh, oh!"
With that, she tipped her head back and arched her spine and came with noisy abandonment. Her partner made a couple more thrusts before he, too, gave a shudder and a satisfied grunt and then slumped against Gaila's chest, his head pillowed on one of her round, perfect breasts.
"Oh, hey, what time is it?" Gaila asked.
Nyota answered, a distant and slightly hysterical part of her mind noting that she was the only one in the room wearing a watch. "It's twenty hundred hours."
Gaila frowned and said something that sounded like, "Chew!" and slapped her partner lightly on the buttocks. "I have to get ready to go out. Come on, move."
The guy made grumbling noises, but then Gaila started to wriggle out from under him, making it impossible for him to stay where he was. He got up and stretched, wearing a dopey, contented smile. "Can I use your bathroom?"
At that, something in Nyota snapped. "No! No, you can't use her bathroom, because it's my bathroom, too, and I haven't used it yet! Just—go!"
"Touchy," the guy said, looking as if he might have been annoyed if he hadn't been too high on post-sex pleasure endorphins to care. He was still smiling as he ambled past Nyota to leave. Lowering his voice, he confided in a tone of utter sincerity, "I love being in Starfleet."
"Out," Nyota ordered.
The door closed behind him, and Nyota looked back to Gaila, who, still naked, was pinning her fire-colored curls into a tight knot at the back of her head. "Do you mind if I shower first? I have to be somewhere in twenty minutes."
"The light was green," Nyota said, aware that was a conversational non sequitur, but past the point of caring.
Gaila's hands went still as she seemed to realize, for the first time, that all was not completely well. "Well... yes."
"Green," Nyota repeated. "Did you want me to walk in on you having sex?"
"Not especially," Gaila said, sounding puzzled. She frowned. "Are you annoyed we didn't ask you to join us? You know, I would have, except I'm a little pushed for time tonight."
Deep breaths, Nyota thought. In and out. She wasn't some unsophisticated naïf from one of the remoter human colonies; there'd been three Andorians and a Tellarite in her kindergarten class, and she knew exactly how you were supposed to deal with an unexpected clash of social norms.
Very slowly, she said, "My culture has strong taboos about sexual intercourse. Most Earth humans consider it a private act, and if you and I going to share a room, I need you to respect that."
"Sure, right," Gaila said, but Nyota could tell she wasn't really listening. Her attention was focused on the small bag of toiletries which she was rooting around in, presumably in search of more hair clips.
"Didn't you read any of the pre-attendance orientation material the Academy sent you?" Nyota asked. "There's a whole section for offworlders about Earth culture."
"I figured I'd work it out once I got here," Gaila said, working more clips into her hair. "And everyone's been really nice so far."
I just bet they have, Nyota thought sourly, thinking of the smirking male cadet. She dumped the duffel bag containing her belongings on to the floor and sat down on the bed that didn't have a damp patch.
Her stomach growled, and she remembered that she'd gotten so caught up in exploring the campus—and then rushing back to the dorm to meet her roommate—that she'd missed her first dinner in the Academy canteen. She unzipped her bag and took out the container her mother had packed for her before she left home. At the time, Nyota had felt embarrassed at the thought of arriving at Starfleet Academy with a packed lunch made by her mom, but right now she was deeply grateful for it. She peeled back the lid, unclipped the spoon, and scooped up a generous quantity of her mother's home-made m'baazi. The taste of it—the distinctive mix of sweet coconut milk and fiery chili —conjured vivid memories of home, and when she blinked the moisture from her eyes, it wasn't entirely due to the spiciness of the dish. For a second, she wanted nothing more than to open her eyes and find herself back having dinner with her parents instead of sitting in a dorm room in San Francisco with an alien sex maniac.
"What are you doing?"
Nyota snapped her eyes open. Gaila was staring at her with an expression which was equal parts horror and disgust.
"Eating dinner," Nyota said around a mouthful of m'baazi. It was ill-mannered to talk with her mouth full, but on the other hand, Gaila didn't seem to be big on personal boundaries, and a small and childish part of Nyota couldn't help thinking that if Gaila was a little offended, too bad.
Except that Gaila didn't look like someone who was a little offended. She looked like someone who was hugely offended.
She clapped her hand over in mouth in a gesture that seemed both emphatic and almost unconscious. Her eyes went comically wide and her cheeks flushed dark until they were the color of moss.
"That," she said from behind her hand, "is disgusting."
"That," Nyota said, swallowing, "is my mom's cooking." She held out the mostly-full container. "Want some?"
"You—you—masticator!" Gaila shrieked, backing away in revulsion.
Which was how Nyota discovered that although Orion society had absolutely no taboos about sex, it had a lot of taboos about food and eating, and she'd just broken all of them.
When Starfleet Academy's Housing and Accommodation Officer—whose name, according to the sign next to her door, was Diane Maza—arrived at her office the next morning, Nyota was already there, waiting.
"My roommate's a sex-crazed exhibitionist with a food phobia," Nyota told her. "You have got to reassign me."
Maza didn't react. She regarded Nyota for a moment with a coolly appraising gaze that seemed designed to silently communicate that she hadn't just seen everything, she'd seen everything plus some other shit as well, and therefore any attempt to shock a reaction out of her was doomed at the outset.
"Why don't you come in and we'll talk about it," she said.
Ten minutes later, after Nyota had outlined the whole sorry story, Maza sat back in her chair and tipped her head to one side. "You know," she said, "Cadet Uhu is the only citizen of Orion currently enrolled at the Academy."
Attempting to sound conciliatory, Nyota said, "And I know that's got to make things tough for her—"
Maza interrupted, "There are eight billion humans on this planet with whom you share a core homeworld culture. I'm thinking that means you probably don't know."
"I had to eat dinner outside!"
"How tragic," Maza observed, her voice dry.
"Look, the only reason we're rooming together is because someone decided that the best phonetic rendering of her name in Standard is almost the same as mine. Can't you just decide to spell Uhu with two O's instead?" Nyota asked, desperate. "Listen: Oo-hoo. That works."
"Cadet Uhura," Maza said, "if we could unilaterally change other people to suit us better, the galaxy would be a more peaceful but very boring place." Maza's gaze flicked down to the screen in front of her which was currently displaying Nyota's extremely brief Starfleet file. "I see you've chosen to specialize in communications."
"Then I suggest you consider this your first practical assignment."
Maza held up a hand. "If you still want to move in a month's time, come back to see me and I'll do it. But before you do, consider that in the course of your career, Starfleet will expect you to be able to live and work successfully with a lot of intelligent beings, all of whom will come from different cultures than yours. In short: if you don't want to have to deal with people who aren't exactly like you, you're in the wrong job."
Nyota blinked, and said nothing. Starfleet's recruitment literature had had a lot to say about the role of the Communications Officer. It wasn't simply a matter of manning a glorified switchboard; the Comms Officer was also the ship's resident expert on non-Federation cultures, the person to whom the Captain turned for guidance in sensitive situations. On deep space missions, the Comms Officer was often the closest thing a starship had to a trained diplomat.
A communications specialist who ran away every time she came up against an unfamiliar culture wouldn't last very long.
Nyota nodded slowly, and stood up. "I understand. Thank you for your time."
"Glad to help," Maza said easily. "Oh, and Cadet Uhura? You might want to read some books about Orion history and culture. I believe the library has an excellent selection."
Yes, Nyota thought as she walked down the hall away from Maza's office, but I bet it doesn't have any recipe books.
The negotiations which followed were tough.
"You will not carry on any kind of sexual activity while I am here," Nyota said. "If you want to bring someone back to our quarters, you will let me know not less than 24 hours in advance so I can plan to be somewhere else."
Gaila pouted, and jabbed a finger at Nyota. "Okay, but you have to agree not to eat or drink anything in the room."
"If you're not here—"
"I'd still be able to smell it when I came back," Gaila said, with clear distaste. "When I'm here, you can't put anything in your, you know—" She made vague gestures which seemed intended to indicate her mouth without actually naming it, "—in front of me."
"I'm not going to step outside just to have a glass of water."
"You can go in the bathroom and close the door to do that," Gaila said, and then muttered under her breath, "like civilized people do."
"All right," Nyota conceded. A few seconds of frosty silence passed. "Do we have an agreement?"
"I guess," Gaila said reluctantly, scowling.
"Good," Nyota said. She smiled, brittle and false. "See? We're getting along better already."
The next month passed without major incident, and when it was over Nyota didn't go back to see Maza. It wasn't that she was getting on better with Gaila—the atmosphere in their room when they were both there was about as relaxed as the Federation/Romulan Neutral Zone—but they'd achieved a level of frosty mutual tolerance. If this was as good as it was going to get for the next four years, then Nyota figured she could manage. Once, coming back from the library late at night, she walked past the open door of one of the other dorm rooms, and glimpsed two female cadets, a human and an Andorian, sitting side-by-side on one of the beds, laughing together at something one of them had just said. Nyota's throat felt strangely tight for a second, but she walked on quickly, and tried not to think about it later.
The truth was, between attending classes, training with the track and field team, studying at the library and rehearsing with the Academy Choral Society, Nyota was hardly ever in the dorm anyway. And that suited everyone just fine.
Things would have gone on like that indefinitely, if the approaching senior mid-terms hadn't meant that the library suddenly got a lot busier, and Nyota—a lowly freshman—was displaced from her preferred spot on the upper level by a stressed-looking cadet who was revising for a stellar cartography final. She had no option but to start studying in the dorm room, which quickly led her to realize that Gaila was there almost every night, not studying or having improbably athletic sex, but just... hanging about, lying on her bed and staring up at the ceiling. For the first week, Nyota just wished she'd find somewhere else to be, not least because it was annoying to have to get up and go into the bathroom every time she wanted to take a sip from her glass of water.
In the middle of the second week, Nyota was loitering in entrance hall of Surak Residence, where she'd been banished with her cup of coffee, when a group of about twenty cadets went past, laughing and joking as they headed off campus together. Nyota recognized a couple of them from the cross-department mixers she'd gone to in the first weeks of the semester, and that, coupled with the snippets of conversation she could make out about dilithium conversion optimization and warp coefficients led her to conclude the revelers were all engineering cadets.
"Looks like your department group's going off-campus for the night," she said when she got back to the room.
Gaila was lying on her side on her bed, facing toward the wall. She made a vague noise of acknowledgement, but didn't move. Fine, Nyota thought. Be like that.
"Aren't you going with them?" Nyota willed the answer to be yes. The idea of having their shared quarters to herself for an entire evening was deeply appealing. She could download a couple of movies from the entertainment server and then lie on her bed and eat popcorn and potato chips. She could get crumbs on the sheets if she wanted. It would be heaven.
"They asked," Gaila said after a second. "I said no."
Disappointment made Nyota's carefully cultivated veneer of politeness crack. "Why? Don't tell me it's because you have another hectic evening of lying around moping planned. If you broke up with someone, get over it already."
"I didn't break up with anyone."
"Then why don't you ever go out anywhere?" Nyota demanded, exasperated.
Gaila rolled over on to her back, and Nyota realized with a shock that there were wet stains on her cheeks; she'd been crying. "Because all you people ever do is eat and drink. The others are all going out to eat that round cheese-bread you all like so much—"
"Pizza," Nyota supplied automatically.
"—And after they're all going to go someplace to consume fermented beverages with hundreds of other people and, anyway, I don't even know of the other engineering cadets that well because they all made friends doing that disgusting thing where you eat in front of each other—"
"We call that dinner," Nyota pointed out, but Gaila was still talking,
"And I have to take this stupid pheromone suppression medication that gives me headaches all the time and I miss my clan-sisters and I was so happy when I got into Starfleet and it's nothing like I thought it would be and I can't—I just—it wasn't supposed to be like this."
There might have been more, but right then Gaila give a hiccupping sob and started to cry, curling up on her bed until she was a tight ball of misery bundled up in her cadet reds.
For a minute or more, Nyota just stood there, unsure what to do. She wondered if she should go and get one of Gaila's friends, before realizing she wasn't sure who they were—or even if Gaila had any. Eventually, she went over to Gaila's bed and sat down beside her. When Gaila didn't respond, Nyota reached out a hand and gently patted her shoulder.
"Hey, now. It's okay."
"No, it's not," Gaila said. She sounded resigned and defeated. "My clan matriarch was right: I should never have come here."
Nyota's parents had been thrilled and proud when she'd been accepted into Starfleet. Her choice had caused ripples of disapproval in some branches of the family: no one had expected the daughter of a sculptor and a composer to choose a career in the military. But Nyota's mother and father had supported her every step of the way, and Nyota suddenly wondered if she could have made it this far without their backing. She went and got a box of tissues and offered them to Gaila, who nodded her thanks and blew her nose noisily.
"Listen, have you visited the de Young yet?" Nyota asked her.
Gaila sniffled, and then blinked at the apparent change of subject. "The art museum? No."
"Then let's go together. You and me. Right now. My semantics paper can wait until tomorrow."
"I don't know," Gaila said uncertainly. "I'm not really into art."
"Honestly, neither am I," Nyota told her. "But if I know one thing about art museums, it's that they don't let you eat or drink in the galleries."
"All right," Nyota said, "your turn."
Gaila studied the canvas hanging on the wall in front of them. "Okay, I'm seeing a rock. A rock surrounded by giant floating triangles. They're probably symbolic floating triangles."
Nyota put her head to one side and tried to make sense of the riot of colors and shapes in the picture. "What do you think they're symbolic of?"
"I don't know. The artist's antagonistic relationship with geometric shapes, I guess. Maybe he was savaged by a rogue hexagon as a child."
Nyota burst out laughing; the sound echoed loudly in the cavernous exhibition space, and she quickly stifled herself. She needn't have worried; it was late in the evening, and there were few other visitors for her and Gaila to disturb. Their visit to the de Young, San Francisco's foremost art museum for more than three hundred years, was turning out much better than she could have hoped. It had become very clear to Nyota, very quickly, that neither she nor Gaila knew the first thing about art, and their stilted attempts to have sensible conversations about the works had swiftly degenerated into a kind of game where they tried to come up with ever more outrageous interpretations. Gaila was better at it than Nyota; she had a gleeful, absurd sense of humor, and Nyota had spent more time laughing in the past few hours than she had since—well, since she started at the Academy.
"It's embarrassing that I know so little about this," Nyota remarked as they made their way on to the next section of the exhibition. "My dad's a sculptor," she added in explanation.
"What about the rest of your clan? Are any of them in Starfleet?"
"One of my mom's cousins is, but I've never met him."
"It's weird..." Gaila started, then broke off, probably worried that whatever she'd been planning to say would cause fresh offence.
"What's weird?" Nyota prompted.
Gaila hesitated, then said, "You have clan you've never even met. At home, to live apart from your clan would be... well, you wouldn't do it unless you had no choice."
Nyota thought about that. Gaila had applied for Starfleet knowing that it would mean leaving her extended family for years at a time. No wonder there were so few Orions in the service. It couldn't have been an easy decision to make. "How big is a typical clan? How many people in yours?"
"Mine is pretty small," Gaila said. "Only two hundred and fifty three."
"There are four of us at home," Nyota said. "Well, three, now. My sister moved out when she got married. I miss having her around." Holomessages and visits were nice, but it wasn't the same as having Elinah in the room down the hall. The house had felt a little bit empty without her.
"Yes," Gaila said wistfully, "I miss my first-circle and second-circle siblings." Nyota wanted to ask more about how Orion clans worked, but before she could, Gaila said, "Okay, I don't get this."
Nyota followed Gaila's gaze and found herself looking at a painting of a man and woman locked in a passionate embrace. Only the couple's heads and parts of their arms were visible; the rest of their bodies were swaddled by a richly patterned cloth which enveloped them in sensuous folds. One of the woman's hands was placed on top of the hand of the man which cupped her cheek, and her other hand was just visible curling around the back of his neck, drawing him closer as she turned her face up, eyes closed, to allow his mouth to meet hers.
"That's a pretty famous painting," Nyota said. "It's by a twentieth century artist, Gustav Klimt. It's called The Kiss."
"I don't understand how you can have so many taboos about sex but still put pictures like this in a museum and encourage people to come and look at them," Gaila said. Her brow was furrowed in frustration. "If your society just didn't talk about sex, well, it'd be weird, but at least it'd be simple. But you don't. Why is it okay to put pictures like this on display and make holovid stories which are all about people having sex then arguing about having sex and then having more sex, but it's not okay to walk up to someone and ask them if they want to have sex?"
Nyota couldn't help wincing. "You did that?"
Gaila sighed in a way that Nyota figured meant the answer was probably yes. "I don't get it," she said again. "It's just sex. It's fun and it feels good and I just don't get why it's such a big deal for your species."
Nyota opened her mouth to offer an explanation, and abruptly realized she didn't have one.
"It's like there's a whole set of rules everyone here knows," Gaila concluded, "and every time I think I've got them worked out, something else happens and I realize I don't."
Nyota was quiet for a moment, thinking about what it would have been like if she'd had to go to Orion to join Starfleet Academy; what it would be like to be the only human on an entire planet. Maybe people would have been friendly to her at first, and invited her along to their getting-to-know-you orgies, but she would have had to say no, because it would've been too strange and uncomfortable to abandon the beliefs and social norms she'd grown up with. Eventually, Nyota supposed, people would have stopped asking, and just left her alone.
"You know," she said slowly, "if there are things you want to ask about, you can ask me."
Gaila looked away, and her expression became shuttered. "Yeah, well, I wouldn't want to accidentally offend you."
Nyota shifted uncomfortably. "I guess I kind of... overreacted that first day."
"I guess I did, too," Gaila said.
They were both quiet for a second. Then Nyota said, "Don't look now, but there's a still life with fruit on the wall behind you."
Gaila made a face. "At home, you'd have to get written permission from the Minister of Culture to look at that kind of thing."
"Come on," Nyota said, "let's go find where they keep the nudes."
"Kissing in public?" Gaila asked.
Nyota thought for a second. "Okay. Usually. Kissing on cheeks and hands and closed mouths is fine. Kissing with open mouths might attract some attention."
Gaila nodded and used her stylus to scribble something on her data pad, the tip of her tongue poking out from between her lips in concentration.
"And public sex?"
"No. No, no, and definitely no."
Gaila's hand paused. "Oops."
Nyota winced. "Where?"
"Um. We might need to study in another library for a while."
Nyota grabbed the pillow from her bed and threw it across the room. "I liked the anthropology library!"
Gaila caught the pillow and slipped it neatly behind her head as she flopped back on her bed. "And it wouldn't be a bad idea to avoid the planetary sciences labs, too."
In retaliation, Nyota opened the drawer of her bedside locker and took out the apple she kept there for just these situations. She bit into it, crunching loudly.
Gaila made retching noises. "Ewww! That's revolting! I feel sick!"
Nyota grinned and took another bite.
Gaila, of course, didn't eat meals in the Academy mess. She had alternative arrangements which Nyota, wisely, hadn't enquired about. She suspected to do so would be roughly equivalent to asking someone their favorite masturbation techniques.
But even though Gaila wasn't there to express her disgust at the custom of communal eating, Nyota must have been starting to empathize with her, just a little bit, because somehow mealtimes just weren't the same anymore.
It was little things, really: tiny details that would have slipped by her a few months ago. Like the command-track cadet who always sat at the table by the window and talked with his mouth full, so that Nyota could see tiny flecks of spit and food flying from between his lips, glinting in the bright shafts of sunshine. Or the bearded cadet who invariably got morsels of his lunch trapped in the cleft between his nose and upper lip. Even the neat eaters somehow unsettled her: the Aurelian female, for example, who spent twice as much time cleaning her mandibles after a meal as she did actually eating it.
These days, Nyota was a lot more choosy about who she sat with at lunch.
"Do you mind if I join you, Commander Spock?"
He was sitting at a table by himself at the most distant end of the mess hall. She would have expected the Academy's sole Vulcan instructor to stand out from the crowd, both for his heritage and the fact that in a sea of red-uniformed cadets, he was wearing the uniform of a commissioned officer. Yet Spock, self-controlled and self-contained, seemed to melt into the background; if he hadn't been the instructor of the senior phonology class (which Nyota had already decided was on her list of must-take courses) she wouldn't have glanced twice in his direction. She wondered if he was eating alone by choice or because most people found making small talk with a Vulcan hard work. But the only other free seat Nyota could find was at a table where a Borellian was eating live slimeworms by sucking them out of their skins, and Nyota felt that if there wasn't a taboo about doing that in public, there damn well should be.
Spock looked at her, his expression mild. "There is no reserved seating; you may eat wherever you wish. It would not be logical for me to raise an objection."
Nyota decided to take that as a yes. She sat down opposite him; the other four seats at the table were empty. She started to eat her salad, noting with relief that the Vulcan was just as tidy an eater as she'd thought he would be, using his knife to neatly dissect the selection of lightly grilled vegetables on his plate, before putting them in his mouth with the precision of a military operation.
"Is something wrong, Cadet?"
Uh-oh. Nyota realized she'd been staring. "I'm sorry," she said. "My roommate's Orion. They have some weird social taboos about eating, and I think it's rubbing off on me."
"Your use of the word 'weird' implies a value judgment on your roommate's culture which is inappropriate. I understand Orion society does not share the sexual taboos exhibited in the majority of galactic cultures. Doubtless there are aspects of human society which appear strange to an Orion."
"You can say that again," Nyota said.
Spock arched one eyebrow. "Was my phrasing unclear?"
"No, it's a—" Nyota broke off. "It's just an expression. I was agreeing with you."
"Ah. I see." Spock continued to talk, while deftly slicing the larger pieces of vegetable on his plate into evenly shaped and sized chunks. "Consider, for a moment, the similarities between the consumption of food and sexual activity. Both are necessary biological functions. Both are a source of physical pleasure."
"And both are kind of gross if you really stop to think about what they actually involve."
Spock paused. If Nyota hadn't known better, she could almost have classed the look on his face as one of amusement. "There is... certainly some merit in that proposition."
"So you're saying that either all cultural taboos are weird, or none are."
"I am saying that it is difficult to conduct successful diplomatic relations with other species if you consider their cultural norms so ridiculous as to be unworthy of consideration."
Nyota nodded slowly, thinking that through. "You have to understand the culture, not just the language. The universal translator makes it easy to translate the literal meaning of words in one language into another, but it doesn't tell you anything about the cultural context behind them."
"Correct. And the universal translator is by no means complete or infallible. It will often give a single translation in Standard to a group of words which have differently nuanced meanings in the original language. For example, this dish of vekh I am eating." He gestured at the plate in front of him. "On Vulcan, it would be made with six different types of root. The recipe used by the Academy kitchens substitutes a single one, as the names of all six varieties are translated into Standard with the same term. The result is..." He paused, then concluded, "...somewhat unsatisfactory."
"I hear there's a great Vulcan restaurant in the Haight," Nyota said, and instantly regretted it, because that had sounded like she was flirting with him. And, yes, underneath that severe haircut and sharply angled eyebrows, he was an attractive man, but he was also an officer and a Vulcan. What was she thinking? Quickly, she said, "Uh, I'm sorry, Commander, I didn't mean to give offense—"
But Spock just looked faintly puzzled. "Why would I be offended by your recommendation of a restaurant?"
Nyota exhaled in relief. "No reason." Apparently, what most people took to be Vulcan superciliousness was actually just a certain unfamiliarity with Earth social norms. Maybe Spock, in his way, was as baffled by human customs as Gaila was.
His meal finished, Spock stood up, lifting his tray to return it to the bussing station. "I have an appointment at 1400 hours. I must take my leave."
"Of course," Nyota said. And then she added, "I hope I didn't disturb your lunch."
"On the contrary," Spock said as he stood up to leave, "I found our discussion most stimulating. Thank you for your company."
"Ooooh," Gaila said, "he thinks you're stimulating."
She was lying next to Nyota on the towels they'd laid out on the roof of Surak Residence. Strictly speaking, the roof was off limits, but there were no active security feeds up here. Nyota was propped up on one elbow, going through the notes she'd taken on her electronic datapad that day, adding tags and categories for ease of reference later. Gaila, just back from swim team practice, was painting her toenails a bright shade of blue. Her damp red hair fell in loose twists on to her bare shoulders; she'd taken off her swimsuit to let it dry in the sun and hadn't bothered putting anything else on instead. No sexual taboos seemed to mean no taboos about nudity either; it had been a little disconcerting at first, but after a while, Nyota had found she'd almost stopped noticing. The same couldn't be said of most of the Academy's other cadets—males and a significant proportion of females—and so, outside of their shared room, Gaila had reluctantly restricted her naturist tendencies to the dorm roof.
Gaila was smirking knowingly; Nyota flicked her bare leg with the corner of her towel. "Shut up."
But Gaila wasn't going to be put off that easily. "Do you want to have sex with him?"
"No!" Nyota said at once. Gaila gave her a look. Nyota sighed: she was fast learning that Gaila had an infallible bullshit detector when it came to all aspects of sexual attraction. It was probably the result of not having to think through the obfuscating layers of human social influence. "Okay, yes, maybe a little. But it doesn't usually work like that in my culture. We'd have to at least have dinner first. Uh, sorry," she added, as Gaila winced and Nyota realized what she'd said. In an attempt to change the subject, she asked, "Shouldn't you be using sun block?"
"No way," Gaila said. "I'm trying to get more exposure to sunlight, not less. I'm not photosynthesizing enough as it is."
Nyota opened her mouth to reply, then stopped, and mentally rewound that sentence and re-played it in her head. "You... photosynthesize?"
"What did you think this was, green paint?" Gaila asked, slapping her thigh.
"It's—chlorophyll?" Nyota said, incredulous. "Wait a second. I thought Orions were mammalian."
"We are. It's a symbiotic relationship. I'm part moss at the cellular level. I get about a quarter of my energy needs directly from sunlight."
"That's why you spend so much time naked," Nyota realized.
"That, and I happen to like it." Gaila stretched out a little more, so that every possible part of her skin was bathed in the rich late-afternoon sunshine. She looked drowsy and content, the way humans might after a good meal, and Nyota wondered what it felt like to draw the sun's energy directly into your body, through your skin. No wonder Orions had taboos about eating; it must seem so messy and inefficient compared to this. Gaila rolled on to her front and started to paint her fingernails, humming happily to herself as the sun warmed the small of her back. "So, you want to have sex with the cute Vulcan. That only leaves one other relevant question: Does he want to have sex with you?"
"I don't know. I've only talked to him once."
"You could just ask him."
"He's a Vulcan," Nyota said. "They're even weirder about sex than humans are. Do you know Starfleet Medical doesn't teach Vulcan reproductive biology? Vulcan High Command won't let them. Vulcans probably don't even know where baby Vulcans come from."
"Why does everyone in this corner of the galaxy have so many hang-ups about sex?" Gaila waved the nail varnish brush in hand to emphasize her point. "You'd all be a lot happier if you just got over yourselves. Oh, chew it," she swore, as a glob of blue polish dropped off the end of the brush and landed on the towel.
"Says the woman who thinks lunch is obscene," Nyota said.
"Two words: macaroni cheese," Gaila replied. "I rest my case."
But having sex with Spock—or having dinner with him, or even just getting to know him a little better—was a theoretical problem rather than a practical one, because right after that, he vanished.
He disappeared from his regular spot in the mess hall, and after a week, a group of noisy Tellarites claimed it. Nyota didn't give it a lot of thought until she discovered, by way of an overheard conversation between two fourth year phonology students, that he hadn't turned up to teach his classes for several weeks, and another instructor had taken over. She made some discreet enquiries, but no one seemed to know what had happened.
When three weeks had gone by, and Nyota still hadn't seen Spock or found out what the problem was, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
She waited outside the lecture hall where the Senior Phonology class took place and watched the final year cadets file out past her. When the last of them had gone, she went in.
The substitute professor, a blue-skinned, bald-headed Bolian, was tidying away his teaching materials. "First year linguistics is in the other lecture hall," he said as Nyota approached him.
"I know," Nyota said. "Actually, I wanted to ask about Commander Spock. I heard he handed over his classes, and I was wondering—" She hesitated. I was wondering if he was okay felt like too personal an inquiry to make about someone she barely knew. "I'm hoping to take his phonology course next semester, and I wanted to know if he's still going to be teaching it."
"If I knew, I'd tell you," the professor said, his attention mostly on the electronic planner he was holding in his hand. "Mr. Spock is unwell, and has been for several weeks."
That was a surprise. Nyota couldn't imagine a Vulcan laid up with the 'flu or its equivalent. "Is he getting treatment?"
"Oh, yes." Nyota felt a weird little jump of relief, which immediately went away when he went on, "The doctors on his home planet will know what to do, I'm sure."
"He has to go back to Vulcan?"
The response was a shrug. "You know Vulcans—they've got a secretive streak a mile wide about their biology. And while your concern is touching, Cadet, I suggest it would be better directed toward your studies." And with that he hurried out of the room, frowning at his scheduler.
Nyota had only been in Starfleet Academy's teaching hospital once, when she'd had her pre-enrollment medical exam, and she had to stop several times to ask the medcentre computer for directions, which it gave her in its calm, emotionless female voice. When Nyota finally located the right room, she stopped at the nurses' station before going in. "I'm here to see Commander Spock."
"Well, you're the first," the nurse said. "Go on in; he's awake."
Spock was sitting up in bed when Nyota came into his room. He didn't look surprised—surprise, Nyota was sure, was on the Vulcan emotional no-no list—but he did raise an eyebrow. "Cadet. This is... unexpected. Please, take a seat."
He gestured at the seat next to the bed; the movement was weirdly clumsy and uncoordinated. He really was sick, Nyota realized. She sat down, noticing how bare the room seemed without any of the get well cards or small gifts which would have been normal in a hospital room occupied by a sick human. "How are you?"
"This is the first time I have been ill since infancy, and I confess I am not finding the experience pleasant," Spock said.
He sounded so peevish that Nyota had to smile. "No one likes being sick."
"I heard you're going back to Vulcan," Nyota said. "Will you be back next semester?"
"I do not know. If I am successfully diagnosed and cured, I shall certainly return. However, my physiology is... unique, and presents certain complexities not found in other Vulcans. My illness has coincided with my first lengthy period of absence from Vulcan. Logic suggests that is not by chance."
"You think something in the environment on Earth is making you unwell? An allergen?"
"Or the lack of something, perhaps," Spock said. "If either scenario is true, I may have to reconsider my future career. It will be difficult to serve in Starfleet if I cannot leave Vulcan for any length of time. There would be... a certain irony inherent in that outcome." He half-closed his eyes as he spoke; he looked, she thought, as though he had hardly any strength, and his face was slack and expressionless. His tone, though, was one of weary resignation tinged with bitterness, and it told her everything she needed to know. Spock must have realized it, too, because he said, "You must forgive me, Cadet. I am finding emotional discipline somewhat difficult to achieve at the moment."
Privately, Nyota thought it was okay to lose some emotional discipline when you were facing the possible end of your career for medical reasons.
"I must ask you to leave now so that I can rest," Spock said. "My stamina is greatly reduced."
"Of course," Nyota said, and stood up to leave. At the door, she paused. "I enjoyed having lunch with you. When you come back next semester, maybe we could do it again."
"That would be acceptable," Spock said. He opened his eyes. "I do not believe you have yet told me your name."
"Your visit was not required, Cadet Uhura. However it was... welcome."
Nyota smiled. "I'm happy to know that, Mr. Spock."
Nyota stopped walking and scanned the landscape ahead of them, feeling tiny and insignificant under the vast sky. "Are you sure this is the right way?"
Gaila peered at the map she was holding. "Um. Maybe?"
"Let me see that." Nyota took the map and studied it, then pulled her compass out of the pocket of her field jacket and checked the direction they were heading. "We should be going that way," she said, pointing.
"Oh, great. Up another hill," Gaila said with a sigh. "Be honest, aren't you just a little bit tempted to use your communicator to call base camp and tell them we're lost and need a transport back?"
"That's an automatic fail," Nyota pointed out.
"You know, I think I could live with that."
"They'd make you do it again. You can't pass first year without being able to navigate unfamiliar terrain unassisted. What would you do if you were assigned to a landing party on your first posting?"
"Follow someone who knew where they were going," Gaila said, and Nyota laughed.
"Come on. We'll take a break at the top."
Gaila grumbled, but followed, and another half-hour's hiking brought them to the top of the ridge. From here, the view was superlative; Earth was a crowded planet, but right here, in the middle of Yellowstone Park, it was easy to believe that they were explorers on a new and pristine world. Nyota shivered at the thought, and wondered how much more powerful that feeling must be when you knew it was the truth and not pretense for the purpose of a training exercise.
While Gaila sat down on a flat-topped rock to rest, Nyota pulled out her water-bottle and took a drink, taking care to turn away so Gaila couldn't see her. Her stomach growled; they'd been hiking and climbing since early in the morning, and they still had a distance to cover. "This is a great spot for a picnic," she said without thinking.
Of course Gaila wouldn't know the term. Nyota winced a little as she realized she'd have to explain it. "It means eating a meal outdoors."
Gaila shook her head. "That's depraved," she said, but she sounded more amused than disgusted. That gave Nyota enough confidence to bring up the awkward subject of lunch.
She shrugged off her backpack, opened it and pulled out foil-wrapped field rations. "Speaking of depraved..."
"Yeah," Gaila said, "me too," which Nyota had learned was as close as she'd get to admitting to feeling hungry. Gaila opened her own backpack and took out an identical packet of foil-wrapped rations, handling it with the kind of discomfort more usually associated with armed sonic grenades. She turned it over a couple of times without opening it.
That was her cue to go somewhere else, Nyota thought. She looked around and saw a boulder a short distance away; it was large enough that she'd be hidden if she sat on its other side, and it had the added advantages of providing shade from the sun and shelter from the breeze. "I'll be back in ten minutes," she said as she stood up.
From behind her, Gaila said, "You don't have to go."
Nyota stopped and turned around, thinking she must have somehow misheard that. But Gaila was still holding her foil-wrapped rations, and although her expression was uncomfortable and uncertain, Nyota knew she hadn't misunderstood.
"The day we went to the art museum," Gaila said softly, "I'd decided to quit and go home. My clan-mother didn't want me to join Starfleet. Before I left, she gave me a big lecture. She told me that humans were all wicked masticators, that they'd make me take drugs to alter my body chemistry, that they thought all Orions were slaves or slave-traders and hated us for it." Gaila gave a half-shrug and a rueful smile. "I thought she was trying to scare me, but then I got here and found she was pretty much right about all of it. The part she didn't tell me... is that clan is whoever you decide it is. And it's okay to eat with clan. So... eat with me."
Nyota couldn't answer for a second as she took in what it was that Gaila was offering her. Then, slowly, she said, "If you're okay with it."
"I'm okay with it," Gaila said.
Nyota nodded, and came back to sit next to Gaila on the flat-topped rock. She waited until, slowly and great care, Gaila started to unwrap her field rations, and only then unwrapped her own, following the label's instructions to activate the self-heat function. The tub hummed in her hands, and when she unclipped the lid a minute later, the savory smell that wafted up to greet her made her mouth water. It wasn't restaurant quality but, after a morning's physical exertion, it didn't need to be.
It was hard to resist the temptation to dig in right away, but Nyota made herself wait until she saw Gaila using a slim implement to spear something in her own ration tub. She started to lift it out, and Nyota watched just long enough to glimpse a small, white cube that looked a little like tofu. She looked away before Gaila put it in her mouth, and didn't look again.
She was ravenously hungry, but she made herself eat in small mouthfuls, chewing and swallowing as quietly as possible. They sat side by side and ate their meals in silence, sitting under the sun in a wilderness on the most densely populated planet in the Federation, and Nyota thought it was both the strangest and the most normal thing she'd ever done.
After she'd finished eating, Nyota packed away her empty ration tub. When she looked up again, Gaila was settling back on to the rock, tilting her face up to the open sky. "How much further do we have to go?"
Nyota consulted the map. "Another twenty klicks."
"Better keep my energy levels up," Gaila said. She started to take off her jacket and then said, "Mind if I...?"
Nyota waved a hand. "Sure."
Less than a minute later, Gaila was basking in the sun, every inch of her chlorophyll-tinged skin exposed from the roots of her hair to the soles of her feet. "Oooooh," she said happily, "That's nice. I swear the quality of light's better out here." She wiggled her toes. "Will you see Spock again before he leaves?"
"I doubt it. The Carolina leaves for Vulcan today. He's probably going to be on it."
"Well, that sucks," Gaila said, with feeling. It was a Standard colloquialism she'd adopted with enthusiasm, although Nyota suspected that it had slightly different connotations when Gaila used it.
"Yes," Nyota agreed. She felt a stab of something like regret at the thought that she probably wouldn't see Spock again, which was weird, considering she really didn't know him. But even in their brief conversations, she'd found herself warming to him, and she was sorry she wasn't going to get a chance to know him better. It was weird how things worked out sometimes: tiny twists of chance that sent lives spinning in new directions. If Gaila's name had been spelled differently in Standard, if Maza had agreed to assign Nyota a different room when she'd asked, if Spock didn't have to give up his career before it had even started because there was something about Earth that made him ill—
("Or the lack of something, perhaps.")
Nyota froze. She stared at Gaila, long enough and hard enough to make even an Orion self-conscious. "Nyota? Is something wrong?"
Nyota raised a finger and pointed it at Gaila. "If you didn't get enough exposure to sunlight, you'd get sick."
"Well, yes," Gaila said. "Light deficiency's pretty common. You get tired and moody, and you have to increase your exposure until you start to get better."
Nyota stood up. "I know what's wrong with Spock," she said excitedly. "Come on, we have get back, right now. I'm going to call in and request an immediate beam-out." She took out her communicator.
"Wait, wait!" Gaila scrambled to her feet. "We'll have to do this again!"
"You said you didn't mind."
"That was before I thought I was actually going to have to do it!"
"Gaila—" Nyota broke off. "Think how you would've felt if you'd had to give up Starfleet."
For a second, Gaila looked torn. Then she nodded. "Fine. I can cope with one failed class, I guess. But you're going to explain this to me, right?"
"Later, there's no time," Nyota said, flicking her communicator on to the emergency channel, the one they'd been instructed only to use if they needed to abort the field exercise. "The Carolina could be leaving orbit right now."
"Okay, but you seriously owe me for this," Gaila said, crossing her arms resolutely. She frowned. "What are you waiting for? You just said there's no time."
"There's always time to put on clothes, Gaila."
"Oh," Gaila said. "Right."
~One Week Later~
"May I join you, Cadet Uhura?"
Nyota looked up from her meal and saw Spock standing on the other side of the table in the Academy mess. "It wouldn't be logical for me to object," she said. Spock looked at her, and for a second Nyota wondered if she was going to have to explain friendly teasing to him. But then he nodded, set his tray down and took a seat opposite her.
"You're looking a lot better than when I last saw you," she told him, and it was true: a week ago, he'd been lying in a hover-bed, about to be transported to the Carolina and off Earth.
"I am still feeling somewhat lethargic," Spock said, "but my condition is improving daily." He produced a small bottle which he unscrewed. He tipped it up and poured a small measure of the contents—a viscous, green fluid—into a spoon, and then swallowed it down. Nyota was sure that the faint grimace he wore as he did so wasn't just her imagination. Even Vulcans didn't like taking their medicine.
She pushed her untouched glass of fruit juice across the table, offering it to him. "Here. Drink something to take the taste away."
He accepted the glass and took a drink from it. "It is remarkable that the lack of a single amino acid should have such a profound effect on the health of the body." He paused for a second. "I might add that I am greatly impressed that a cadet majoring in communications was able to reach a correct diagnosis where qualified physicians had failed."
"I got lucky," Nyota said. "And, anyway, I didn't reach a medical diagnosis—I just figured out that you had... a translation problem."
Spock arched an eyebrow. "That is one way of describing it. If I had realized that the lack of accurate translations of specific ingredients in Vulcan dishes was causing the Academy kitchens to prepare food lacking in one of the compounds essential to my health, I would have perhaps lodged more vigorous complaints regarding the quality of the food."
Nyota looked at him for a second, trying to decide if that really was what it sounded like: a joke. Spock's face was perfectly impassive; then again, she thought, who else could play the perfect straight man, but a Vulcan?
"Then again," Spock continued, "a full Vulcan would not have suffered the same extreme effects of the deficiency that I did. And while the doctors were diligent, they cannot be faulted for not having access to full information regarding Vulcan physiology. Perhaps the lesson to take from the experience is that more communication between different cultures is always desirable."
"Yes," Nyota agreed. "So I've discovered."
"Which brings to me to the purpose of this conversation," Spock went on. "Cadet Uhura, I owe you a great debt of gratitude."
Nyota shook her head. "The doctors on Vulcan would have figured out what was wrong with you pretty quickly, once you were back there."
"But not before I would have been forced to give up my post at the Academy, at least for the remainder of this academic year. I am, as I say, most grateful." He paused. "I have been speaking to your roommate, Cadet Uhu."
Uh-oh, Nyota thought. She tried to imagine an encounter between Spock and Gaila, and failed to come up with any scenario that didn't end in toe-curling embarrassment for all concerned. "You have?" she asked finally, in as neutral a tone as she could manage.
"I asked her what she thought an appropriate gesture of thanks might be."
Oh, no. Nyota tried not to wince. She took a breath. "You know, in Orion culture, it's very normal to express emotions through, uh, physical relations—"
Spock said, "She suggested I should ask you out to dinner."
Nyota stopped. "...Dinner?"
"I am reliably informed that there is an excellent Vulcan restaurant in the city." Spock's face was grave, but there were tiny creases at the corners of his eyes. He was amused, Nyota thought. He was totally laughing at her. "It is called the Yem-tukh Nar-tor'i. In Standard, it means—"
"Acceptable Food," Nyota translated. Of course it was called that. What else would a Vulcan restaurant be called?
All at once, it was too much. She giggled, and when she put a hand to her mouth to stifle the sound, she only succeeded in turning it into a half-snort. "I'm—oh, I'm sorry, Commander Spock," she said once she could speak without laughing. He was looking at her quizzically; a fit of the giggles was probably no more strange to him than any of the other displays of emotion he was forced to contend with on a daily basis. "We're all weird, aren't we? Humans, Vulcans, Orions, all of us, with our strange customs we can't explain, even to ourselves. But we keep trying to understand each other anyway. Isn't that strange? Isn't it..." She broke off, unable to think of the right word.
"Personally," Spock said, "I have always found it quite marvelous."
"Marvelous," Nyota agreed. She leaned forward and put her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands. "Mr. Spock: let's do lunch."