Aisha is nine years old. Her earbuds are jammed into her ears tightly enough to obscure the sound of her younger brothers' squeals and even the tinkling of breaking glass in the living room. Well, almost anyway. Enough for plausible deniability. She rocks back and forth in the porch swing, her strong legs propelling it faster than Mama says it's meant to go. The breeze rustles her hair, and she turns her face toward the early morning sun.
The swing stops with a jerk. The music disappears next. Granny's face looms high above her, blocking out the light.
"Aisha Lanae Darwin, did you or did you not just sit here on your behind when you knew your brothers were running wild in the living room?"
"Why are you asking if you already know?" Aisha mutters. Granny's eyes narrow dangerously, and Aisha backpedals fast. "I mean, no one told me I was on baby-sitting duty today, Granny, I'm sorry."
"Tell me the rule in this house, Aisha."
Aisha looks down at the whitewashed wooden planks on the porch.
"If something needs to be done, you do it," she recites dully.
"And what will you do to correct your mistake?"
"Clean up the glass. Watch my brothers." Granny crosses her arms over her chest. Aisha can't hold her gaze. "Replace Mama's vase before she comes home."
There goes her allowance for the week.
Aisha throws her backpack into her bike basket and pedals away from school as fast as she can. The bike had been a gift for her twelfth birthday, a rare brand new item in a house full hand-me-downs. The gold streamers whip in the wind as she gains speed, and really, Aisha couldn't care less if she's supposed to be too old for that. Gold is her favorite color, and it's not like she's ever had a brand new, well, anything before.
"Wait!" Jennifer calls behind her. "Jasmine hacked the parental controls on the live stream feed. Don't you want to come watch?"
Aisha stops just long enough to shake her head. "My mom will kill me if I'm not at the restaurant by four."
Jennifer steps out in front of the bike. "Haven't we talked about this six times already? Your mom can't kill you. It would be, like, a felony or something. Just this once, come on, before Jasmine's parents get home."
"Whatever." Aisha is nice enough to steer the bike around Jenny before she pedals away at full speed. As if she could really enjoy watching pixelated images hacked from some adult movie when the dinner rush is about to start and dishes need washing and someone has to fill up the ketchup bottles and put silverware on the tables.
"Children," she mutters under her breath. "So irresponsible these days."
The whispering starts when she's fourteen, after the sexual and gender diversity talk at school.
"Do you think she is one?"
"I don't know. She kind of looks like it. Does she have an Adam's apple?"
Aisha stiffens when she realizes they're talking about her, but she doesn't turn around.
The teacher's voice drifts down the hallway, sharp and firm. "Girls, the purpose of today's seminar was not to encourage judgments about anyone's appearance or gender expression. I'll need you to come back after school for a follow-up lesson."
Aisha knows she should let Ms. Maldonado handle it. But hot tears are leaking down her face, and she's not about to go home and cry because these two bitches think her strong features make her look like a man in disguise.
At the discipline conference, she tries to argue that the rock wasn't that big -- a pebble, really. A teeny, tiny stone she'd found in the courtyard that just happened to hit Gloria in the back of her head. Really, it's not her fault that Gloria had stepped out just as Aisha had thrown it. And if Regina had somehow gotten in the way of a second pebble? Well, people are unlucky sometimes.
Aisha gets suspended for three days and grounded for twenty-one. On the bright side, Coach T says she has a good arm on her and invites her to join the football team.
First day of senior year, Aisha's English teacher makes them choose five colleges: one reach, three in the middle, and one safety. Starfleet Academy is Aisha's reach.
"I didn't know you wanted to go to the Academy," her mother says, beaming. Aisha can tell she's already imagining the commissioning ceremony.
"I didn't know either," Aisha admits.
She'd left the worksheet for the last minute and written down the first schools she could think of. Now that she has the application packet, the stars are all she can think about, which is stupid. She can't get in. Starfleet wants what her counselor calls 'full package students,' and a football player with awesome math grades isn't even half the package. Uploading her transcript is embarrassing; if she'd done her homework, she'd have better to show than all these B's and C's.
Under describe your community service, Aisha types "I don't know what you mean by community service. When something needs done, you do it. That's not service. It's not a favor. It's your job."
Her English teacher deducts ten points for the response.
Starfleet Academy lets her in.
At Starfleet Academy, Aisha works for her C's.
"This place is something else, Granny," Aisha says. It's four in the morning, and she's going to see dawn from the wrong side again. Thank goodness her grandma doesn't keep normal sleeping hours.
Starfleet transmissions are crystal clear. She can see Granny's tea cup on their beat-up kitchen table and almost smell the grits cooking on the stove. Aisha grits her teeth; she hates being homesick.
"I thought you knew Starfleet was going to be different from everywhere else," Granny says. "Isn't that why you went?"
"Not this different. The people here are not normal. There's this girl in my Vulcan class who's fluent in six languages. I thought she was lying, but she cussed me out in Romulan, Klingon, and Mongolian. Who the fuck speaks Mongolian? And this thirteen year old kid in warp mechanics can do differential equations in his head. They made a mistake, Granny. They shouldn't have let me in."
"Aisha Darwin, I will thank you to watch your language when you speak to your grandmother." Even through the computer screen, Granny's glare is sharp enough to make Aisha wince. "And I will also thank you to have a little more faith in yourself. Are you not the girl who shaved your head and stole your brother's ID so you could beam to a soccer match in Capetown? You will solve your problems. You always do."
Aisha raises an eyebrow. "Is that orange juice in your cereal?" she asks.
"Fuck," Sulu says, but he takes a bite of it anyway.
"Guess I'm not the only one who pulled an all-nighter." She hadn't thought Sulu would have to do things like that. Rumor has it he's been flying since he was four. His flight skills certainly make it seem that way.
"I flunked a dilithium chemistry test. Again," Sulu says. "I should have just gone to bed. Then I could at least be a well-rested failure."
"I know that feeling," Aisha says. She decides to pour her chocolate milk into her cereal, nutrition be damned. "You know, we could probably make a trade. Dilithium chemistry is about the only thing here that makes sense to me, and you're a lot better at stellar navigation than I am..."
"And this is definitely the kind of place where you need a partner to survive," Sulu says. "It's a deal."
"Do you know why you're here, Cadet?" Pike asks.
Aisha clenches her hands into fists, hoping that Pike won't see them shaking. She is going to kill Sulu. He had promised there was no way anyone could find out about the prank.
"No, sir, I do not," she says.
Pike raises his eyebrows. "Really? No idea at all?"
Aisha shakes her head. "None, sir."
Pike flicks through his tablet. "On September tenth last year, you took it upon yourself to unclog an overloaded refresher in the gym locker room. On November twelfth, you cleaned up the navigation simulator yourself. On January nineteenth, you spent six hours helping the petty officer distribute uniforms. Your brief Starfleet career is littered with incidents like these."
"Is that a violation of the rules, sir?" Aisha asks.
"No, far from it. And yet, none of your fellow cadets have rendered even a tenth of this assistance to officers in need. Not many people are willing to perform unglamorous tasks for little reward."
Aisha lets out a slow breath. "It's how I was raised, sir."
Pike comes around from the desk, his face softening into a smile. "It's time for you to choose your concentration, Cadet. I'm notifying you that you've been chosen for command. What do you say to that?"
"That's very flattering sir. I mean that." Praise from Pike doesn't come easy; everyone knows that. "But I think you've made a mistake. I'm not number one in anything. I'm fighting just to stay in the middle."
"Your only mistake is misunderstanding the nature of command. It's not about accumulating honors and awards. It's about doing what needs to be done and leading by example. You can do that. Now what do you say?"
Aisha takes Pike's outstretched hand. "Mission accepted, sir."
"Thank you, Cadet. You are dismissed."
She's almost at the door when Pike says, "Actually, there's one more thing I'd like to discuss with you."
Aisha freezes. "Yes, sir," she says, facing him slowly.
"Now that you have joined the command track, I trust that the incident with the pumpkin and Admiral Archer's dog will not be repeated."
"Of course not, sir." Pike's stare is boring through her head, so she adds, "You know, I was thinking of volunteering for latrine duty tomorrow."
"That sounds like an excellent idea, Cadet. Bring along Mr. Sulu and your toothbrush."