Nyota's room looks the same. The desk, covered in padds and books and scrawled notepaper, looks as though rather than heading to the Academy, she's stepped out for tea. Other cadets transported home regularly; Nyota found repeated transitions worse than one clean break. The sunlight makes diffraction patterns through the shutters, throwing great sweeps of light across the wall, and Nyota looks at them as though at a star chart, as though they map out something from long ago and far away.
"I couldn't bear to clean it," her mother says, at the door. "Why didn't you send a message to say you were coming?"
Nyota says, "I didn't know how."
For a long moment, there is silence. Nyota senses her mother's distance; when they last stood here like this, at either side of this small stretch of floor, she was a schoolgirl. The long years of study, the longer minutes of combat, they're here as the distance in the room, here as the space Nyota crossed alone.
She says, suddenly, "Spock's mother is dead. Gaila – she's in the hospital at Starfleet Medical, she's going to be okay, they say, but I couldn't visit, they wouldn't let me visit."
And, she doesn't say, others have lost so much than this. "Aren't you going to ask me about the Achernari?" she adds, and starts, inexorably, to cry.
"Screw the Achernari," her mother says, and crosses the room in two strides. "I'm sure they're wonderful people, but screw them anyway."
Her mother hugs her fiercely, without care or delicacy but with love, and Nyota thinks about the long nights she spent in this room, sitting straight-backed at her desk while her mother lay on the bed, leaning on a stack of pillows, grading papers. She tried to persuade her daughter to sleep late on weekends and not to drive herself so hard, and Nyota didn't listen; so Nyota studied late into the night, every night, and her mother made tea after dark and poured out mute, loving cups. Nyota passed the entrance exams for the Academy with the highest distinction, and took packets of tea leaves to San Francisco.
"I'm so sorry," her mother says, softly. "I'm so, so sorry. I know I can't understand." She lets go and stands up. "Let me make you some tea, baby, okay?"
She's gone without waiting for an answer, which is just how Nyota remembers things should be. She looks around her room, feeling washed through, a little insubstantial. The quietness of the world creeps in: broken by crickets chirping and the distant hum of the generator, small noises that only underscore the depth of the silence beneath. Nyota sinks back on the pillows, draws up the sheets despite the heat of the day, and drinks it in like wine, the sound of nothing at all being said.
Other girls read holo-novels in their spare time. Other girls had pictures of film stars on their walls.
Nyota never found a good picture of Amanda Grayson. She had a much-thumbed dry biography, scholarly articles downloaded to her padd and read and re-read, and in the bottom of her schoolbag, battered beyond all recognition, a first edition of the first dictionary written for lay learners of Vulcan. There was a foreword by the author, a humorous and kind exhortation to the reader to persevere, and there was an image, but blurred and tiny and Nyota couldn't make out any features: it showed a human woman, with a covering over her head to protect her eyes from the Vulcan sun.
"Nyota's such a clever girl," Professor Uhura said cheerfully to relatives, seeing her take it out and read, once again, the list of first-declension nouns and the list of ways to conjugate in the pluperfect. "She works so hard. She doesn't take after me at all."
Nyota laughed, knowing it wasn't true, remembering the great piles of papers to be graded that piled up on her mother's desk. She was thinking of them again years later, working as a TA, drinking her mother's tea and sorting through first-year pop quizzes.
The door chimed, and Nyota shouted, "Gaila, you'd better be wearing clothes!" before remembering Gaila had never knocked before entering in her life, and a middle-aged, distinguished-looking woman in white entered and said, "Excuse me, am I disturbing you?"
And it didn't matter that Nyota had never seen a picture of her, because she had Spock's eyes.
"No," Nyota said, "no, I'm sorry, my roommate, she – I'm sorry."
Amanda Grayson smiled at her, a warm smile that for all its emotion, also reminded her of Spock, and sat down on the edge of Gaila's bed. "My son tells me," she said thoughtfully, "that you are interested in my work."
"Oh, yes," Nyota said, quickly, "I've read nearly everything you've ever published, and in my thesis I cited – I'm sorry." A pause, while she looked at her childhood hero calmly moving some of Gaila's underwear and reaching for a cushion. "I just… I'm sorry, I have to ask you what you're doing in my dorm room. Not that I mind, I just…" She waved her hands, hating her own incoherency. "I just. You know?"
"My dear girl, I do apologise." Another smile. "My husband is on Earth attending a meeting of the Federation Council. My son is engaged in a particle experiment of such devastating tedium that he will be occupied until this evening, or so he informs me. Not precisely in those words. And I was taking a walk around the Academy grounds in the sunshine when I happened to pass your door, and naturally my human inquisitiveness reasserted itself. I confess to having been very curious to meet you, ever since Spock's letters became quite so... liminal."
"Liminal?" Nyota repeated, feeling stupid.
"A lovely word, isn't it? Ever since he first met you, he has written around the edges of you, rather than about you; I find I know a great deal about your research interests, and your many contributions to class discussion about communications and linguistics, and nothing at all about what you look like, what your hobbies are, where you come from." She leaned back against the wall, tucking the cushion behind her back, and Nyota thought she sounded almost girlish. "Spock may be the most emotionally restrained person I know, but I am his mother, and I think I understand him. I suspected you would be an interesting woman, Ms. Uhura."
"Call me Nyota, please," Nyota said quickly.
"Then you must call me Amanda. Oh, and you mustn't think this is some sort of exacting maternal appraisal! I wanted to meet you because of my 'satiable curiosity, as the story put it. What a horrible impression of myself I must be giving you. I do apologise, again."
"Please don't," Nyota said, sincerely. "I read your first book, the travellers' dictionary, until it wore out. It made me want to go to other planets and... talk to people."
Immediately, she was a little appalled at her own honesty – but Amanda laughed. "How wonderful. I take that as an honour, Nyota."
Nyota smiled back at her. "Would you like some tea?"
"Thank you, I would love some."
Nyota made it the old-fashioned way, running boiling water over the leaves so the room filled with the scent of her mother's house. Amanda breathed it in, smiled and said nothing at all, and Nyota thought, in that moment, that she understood Spock a little better, and herself, a little better still.
The cool after the sunrise is a quiet presence in the house. Nyota sips her tea, and thinks, and spends some time luxuriating in not thinking, and when the world outside is quite dark, steps downstairs to see if she can be of any help with dinner.
Her mother looks up at the sight of her, and smiles. Unusually, she isn't cooking; she is staring at the replicator set in the wall with a determined expression. "Horrible contraption keeps over-salting things. How's your blood pressure?"
"Fine," Nyota says, amused. "Can I help?"
"Keep me amused," her mother says, turning towards the kitchen worksurfaces with a sigh. "Tell me about the Achernari." Her smile is a little knowing. "Tell me what isn't on the news networks."
"News networks?" Nyota raises her eyebrows, and rushes to the next room to grab for the nearest padd. A few taps, and there is the story flooding across the screen: the clipped journalistic prose, talking about deep-space scouting and first contact procedure, the measured optimism that the ideals of the Federation are surviving Nero, and, yes, the picture, Kirk and Spock striding forth over the new world, but also the inset – Nyota Uhura, noted scholar and communications specialist aboard the Enterprise, is largely responsible for our cultural comprehension of the Achernari. They've got the image out of her Academy file; her seventeen-year-old eyes stare balefully out. Nyota puts her head in her hands and groans.
"Don't be ridiculous," her mother says. "You should be proud, Nyota."
The Achernari's world is a quiet one, far off the galactic trade routes and a long way from any particularly notable stars. It appeared on Vulcan long-range scans from time to time, as its nearest main sequence star other than its own sun is 40 Eridani, and it was noted, quietly, methodically, as a world to return to. After Nero, it was a matter of luck that someone had been watching – someone on Earth, hundreds of parsecs away – when something happened in its atmosphere, something intensely bright, energetic and a little eerie in the way it distorted the fabric of reality.
"Their first warp test," Kirk had said. "It was followed by several more, a few weeks apart."
By the time the survey team arrived, a prototype had been developed, and a small native ship was in a low orbit around the planet. And by the time the survey team had gone away and made its report, and the report had been copied in triplicate to the people who needed to see it, and quite a few people who didn't, and plans had been made, discarded and started again from scratch, and resources requisitioned, and re-requisitioned, and personnel gathered, reshuffled and gathered again, and, finally, the Enterprise was making its way across the galaxy as a streak of brilliant white light, the Achernari were making plans for their first interstellar flight.
The night before, Nyota had said to Spock, "Imagine it."
He raised an eyebrow.
"The people on that planet. They're sleeping soundly. They have no idea that tomorrow… their minds are going to be blown. I mean, maybe they're hideously xenophobic and they'll hate us and never make contact with the outside world at all. But something is still going to change in the fabric of their society, and it isn't the sort of change that's ever going to be undone. And it's happening tomorrow."
"The people on that planet," Spock had observed, primly, "do not sleep. They have no analogue of that physiological function."
After a pause: "But I understand your meaning."
In the ship's artificial morning it turned out that the survey team's calibration of the universal translator hadn't gone much beyond "greeting [informal register] – happy – acquaintance – unspecified personal pronoun - other", and at last in despair, Nyota transported down to the surface of the planet and tried desperately to communicate. Afterwards she wondered if her instinct was to be in their presence, to stumble on her own words, to make hand gestures, to be imperfect – because every species had that, at least, in common. In her log she wrote: "The Achernari are among the most beautiful and the most alien people I've ever met", and then wanted to curse herself for her own inanity, because she was twenty-five years old, she hadn't met a twelfth of a percent of the people the galaxy had to offer.
But they were beautiful. Silicon-based, unlike most humanoid species, their bodies were grand clusters of translucent filaments, and in the planet's warm breezes, they spoke like the windchimes in Nyota's childhood room. The notes they sang were dissonantly pragmatic, or harmonic when they talked of abstraction; their reading of the Federation Charter was an angular and gorgeous symphony.
They needed time. Every world needed time. Everyone needs time to think, Nyota said, hearing her own voice as chimes, and returned to the ship. Back on board, she went to rest and slept long past her time for waking; in the early afternoon, she listened to a recording of the Achernari singing – a lamentation song, a paean to an old way of life – and cried a little and didn't think to apologise for missing her duty shift.
Doctor McCoy sent an urgent message to Starfleet, strode through the gleaming corridors of the ship and ended up on the bridge and shouted whose goddamn fool idea was this, anyway.
"I agree with him," her mother says. "Whose idea was it to send the Enterprise on a mission immediately? I'm sure it was very good for Starfleet's public relations, but." She paused. "I doubt there is a single member of the crew who didn't lose someone in the Romulan attack. And certainly there isn't one who isn't in dire need of a rest."
"They sent us home," Nyota says. "That's why I came home."
"You can always come home," her mother tells her, matter-of-fact. "And you should be proud of what you achieved."
Nyota shakes her head. "I was an idiot. I actually told Spock, the Achernari are going to have their minds blown by us. What was I thinking, to assume that my presence – that the Federation's presence – need mean anything to another species? It's about context, it's about understanding other people, it's about communication. It's not about assimilating people so they're just like us. I don't understand anything."
Her mother smiles at her. "I am proud of you, Nyota," she says, softly, and returns to chopping a papaya. Wordlessly, Nyota takes the other knife and chops with her, in rhythm, so the fruit bleeds sweet over both of their hands.
The door chime sounds in the early morning.
"Professor Uhura" – a little hesitation, there – "I do not mean to intrude. I only…"
"You're not intruding, Spock," the professor says, and leads him over the threshold.
"Commander Spock," says Nyota, amused, from her perch on the upper landing, and they both look up.
"Nonsense," says her mother. "Spock, dear, come and have breakfast." She ruffles his hair and takes him into the kitchen. They're early risers, and the cool, astringent smells of the sliced fruit, the lemon water and cold coffee, are beginning to permeate the house. On Spock's previous visits, he's remarked shyly on the arrangement, noting that the simple food, the rising warmth of the day, remind him of Vulcan. Nyota's mother smiled, ruffled his hair in that same way, was pleased that he felt at home.
"Eat up, child," she says, a few moments later, when they're seated around the table. "Have some of the pomegranate, it's good and sweet."
"Mother," Nyota says, still amused, "he's not a child."
"Not so," her mother says seriously. "When I lost my mother, I was a child, and I was every day of forty." She gives Spock a soft smile. "Spock, my dear, I am so sorry for your loss, and you don't have to be a Starfleet officer in my house."
"Thank you," Spock says, and Nyota knows him; she knows the note of sincerity in the stillness of his voice.
"Stay," she says.
"I cannot." Another tiny hesitation, like the one he had on the threshold. "I wish I could, Nyota. I do wish it. But I must..."
He trails off. Nyota says, "There's work to be done."
Her mother says, "Stay today." Her tone brooks no argument, and he nods again.
After breakfast, they go outside. The house is surrounded by orchards, trees groaning under the weight of fruit, and the scent rises, clean but somehow heady, all around them. Nyota thinks Spock must be enjoying the heat, like home; there is a relaxed cast to his shoulders never seen in the ocean-borne chills of San Francisco, and then she remembers that the heat of Vulcan is gone. It's getting tiring, that weary wash of grief.
"What work is it?" she asks, at length. They have come to a pause at a wooden bench, overlooking the water. Across the creek, she can see over the depression in the land to the beginnings of the city. This early in the morning, the first shuttles are curving into Mombasa, blurring heat trails in great curves against the sky.
"Rebuilding," he says, shortly, and then turns to her. "I apologise. I did not mean to be abrupt."
"It's okay," she says, and means it. Taking a moment, she says, "Your mother, Spock. Will there be a memorial service?"
"There will be two events," Spock says, and his voice has slowed. Nyota inhales for a long moment, holding in her lungs the breath and scent of home, and holds up her hand. Spock glances at her, glances at the sky across the water, the deepening blue by the horizon, and holds up his. Their fingers touch.
Spock says again, "There will be two events. One shall be held aboard the Enterprise, for my mother's family, for her friends, and for the crew. It is where she... died."
"The other shall be held among the Vulcans who knew my mother. Who remain. There are" – another long pause – "rituals that must be undertaken. There are... traditions."
Nyota nods again, and this time she holds onto his hand. "Will it be on Earth?"
"It will be on the new world." Spock leans back on the bench. "The Federation are working with my people. A new world will be found. There are so few of us, that perhaps we could… disperse. But it shall not be so."
Nyota thinks about the work she's done, the papers she's read about communication, about disapora, and she thinks of Vulcan boiling away to dust. "It shall not be so," she repeats, echoing his enunciation.
"It may not be for some time." Spock holds onto her hand. "It may not be for many months. Nevertheless, I would appreciate it if you could attend, Nyota."
Nyota draws in a sharp breath. "Spock, you know... you know I'd come in a heartbeat. But it's a Vulcan ceremony... wouldn't I be intruding?"
Spock says, "You are human. My mother was human. And you are my family."
Nyota smiles. "I'll come."
Spock says nothing, but his grip on her hand tightens. They relapse into silence, and Nyota is aware of it again; the quietness settling like a cloak around them both. The air is freshening with the rising of the sun.
"There was another matter," Spock says, after a while. "I intended to inform you of this earlier, but I was remiss."
"What is it?" The sun on her head is making Nyota dreamy, making her eyes slip out of focus and merely revel in the great swathes of green and blue of the landscape and the sky.
"The Achernari have petitioned to join the Federation," Spock says, and Nyota is surprised at the way the thought warms her, glowing as inward mirror of the sun.
Nyota is half-dozing, half-daydreaming, when someone knocks at her door. Wondering blurrily if her mother has come home from the university early, she calls, "Come in."
The door takes so long in opening that Nyota has begun to wonder if she imagined the knock. After a minute a familiar voice says dully, "Nyota."
Nyota's eyes snap open. "Gaila?"
"You always talked about it," Gaila says quickly, sounding far more unsure of herself than Nyota has ever heard her, "you always talked about Mombasa, where your mother's house was. I went to the Academy first, and I tried to check the central databases to see where you lived, but the recordkeeper wouldn't let me look, he said it was protected information, and I said, please show me, she's my friend and I'm trying to find her, but he wouldn't help me. So I offered to have sex with him if he would."
"And you did?" Nyota asks, not because this is the most important part of the story.
Gaila shakes her head. "No, I just left him tied to his desk. It's okay, I think his supervisor will have found him by now. I took a shuttle."
Nyota laughs. "Why didn't you call me via my comm? I could have told you where I live, I could have come and gotten you myself."
Gaila looks, if that's possible, more unsure and embarrassed than before. "I thought... I thought..."
"You thought," says a quiet voice from the door, "that if you were here already, we couldn't get rid of you as easily." Gaila blushes teal, and Professor Uhura steps into the room. "You are Nyota's friend, whom I have heard so much about? Gaila?"
"You're a foolish girl," Nyota's mother says, fondly, "to think we would ever turn you away. Come down in an hour for your meal, children."
Her footsteps disappear down the stairs. In all their years rooming together, it's been Nyota who finds this hard, whose body language is stiff and awkward, Gaila with the easy tactile grace, but something has changed this evening. Nyota puts an arm around Gaila's shoulders and finds that the nonsense words come easily for once, the hushes and murmurs of comfort. Gaila says into her shoulder, "I got out of the hospital and tried to go back to the ship. And they said there was only a skeleton crew, that the mission with the Achernari was over. Everyone was on downtime, they said I should go home. I said I'm Orion but I'm a free woman, I can't go home. They gave me a list of hotels in San Francisco. I didn't... I mean, I couldn't. I got a shuttle. I just, I couldn't."
"It's okay," Nyota says, and her thesis was about performative speech acts; she understands how words shape the world. "You're home now, it's okay."
Gaila shudders a little, lets out a breath, and sits up. "What's for dinner?"
Nyota grins at her. "Very salty soup. And one of my mother's amazing fresh fruit salads."
"That sounds wonderful," Gaila says, dreamily, and at dinner, she thanks Professor Uhura and eats ravenously despite the salt. "I hate hospital food," she adds by way of explanation, and Nyota's mother laughs and ladles her out some more. For the first time in days, Nyota is thinking about eating meals on the Enterprise – although the food leaves something to be desired, she likes the feeling of being surrounded by people she loves, doing work she loves. She smiles, and Gaila seems to guess what she is thinking.
"I'll be coming with you," she says, happily. "Any cadet who managed to survive Nero is excused from final exams and gets their choice of posting. I already spoke to Chief Engineer Scott, he says he'll be happy to take me on."
Nyota grins. "That's wonderful." Teasingly: "Did you offer to have sex with him?"
"As a thank you." Gaila laughs. "He said no, but he'd be happy to take me out to dinner sometime."
"Well," Nyota says. "Good" – and Gaila catches her eye over the chopped fruit. Suddenly, Nyota can picture it all so clearly – Chief Engineer Scott, Gaila, the romantic dinner with the Enterprise's warp drive providing the soft music and socket wrenches for cutlery – that she's falling over her words in her effort to explain her glorious vision, and after a minute the two of them are laughing so hard they can't breathe. Professor Uhura gives them both indulgent smiles and says, to no one in particular, "Starfleet's finest young women, at rest."
They settle down eventually, finish their meals and help clear away, and after the replicator has finished churning over the dishes the silence creeps in again, comforting, sweet.
It strikes her, when she's lying in bed – Gaila took a bedroll despite Nyota's protests, said they could swap over the following night – that she hasn't laughed so much in a long time, nor felt so comfortable with the sound of voices.
Gaila says, into the dimness, "Do you remember that time we went to that little dive bar on the Haight? The one with the yellow sunshine cocktails?"
Nyota snorts. "As if I would forget. You tipped a half-bottle of tequila in my hair, I still don't know why."
"I was drunk. And sexually frustrated."
"Gaila, is there a reason you're choosing to remind me of that particular low point in my life?"
Gaila takes an audible breath. "Thank you. For doing this. Even though…"
"Even though I was washing my hair for a month?" Nyota asks, dryly. "You're right, this is all a mistake, I bear a tequila-flavoured grudge, get the hell out of my room."
Gaila laughs softly, and after a moment, Nyota adds: "You're welcome."
And after another: "Thank you, too."
"I come to your world during troubled times," says Sarahazi, thoughtfully, on their third circuit of the garden. This first meeting, setting out the first terms of the Achernari accession to the Federation, is in its last recess of the day. On a whim, Nyota led the way to one of these secluded, small gardens; although they evoke Versailles, they are in the city proper, surrounded by the splendour and bureaucracy of the world government.
The shrubs are resplendent with softly opening white flowers, and Nyota breathes in their delicate, distant perfume. She nods at Sarahazi, remembers not to do that and says instead, "Yes, yes, you do. I hope it doesn't make you think worse of us."
"There is a proverb among my people" – the translator hiccups; the Achernari word for "people" is the same as the Federation's word for their species – "about how to know people at their best is not to know them at all. To express it another way, it is how a people responds to adversity that shows you what they really are. It was the Federation's recent altercation with the Romulans that confirmed our decision to petition."
Nyota says, "We are honoured that you wish to join us."
"The honour is all ours," Sarahazi says, formally. The translation algorithms are improving, but Nyota has deliberately not ironed out the last wrinkle – the tendency of the translation to sound like words in quicksilver, a cacophony of wind-chimes. From the academic perspective, she suspects that to remove the chiming would be to erase a vital aspect of their communication, and from a personal one, she would miss the melody. "But I am warned by your officials that it will take much time and" – discordant jangle – "paperwork."
Nyota laughs. "Is that why you and your people have made this journey to Earth?"
"If we are to be Federation citizens, it will be merely the first trip of many," Sarahazi says seriously. "I must thank your people for your kindness, in carrying us this distance."
Nyota smiles. "It's a pleasure."
"And I must also thank you personally, Lieutenant Uhura. It is a pleasure to be accompanied by a familiar face." Its filaments come together and make a silver descending scale, a noise that indicates something between resignation and amusement. Nyota has been wondering if there's a paper to be written about the punctuating sounds the Achernari make that would, in a human, all be forms of laughter. "I am sure you will understand how valuable a familiar face is, on a world made entirely of aliens. Kind and hospitable aliens, but aliens, nonetheless."
"I understand," Nyota says.
"But nevertheless, I apologise for taking you from your" – and here the translator breaks down entirely. Nyota hears a single struck note, high and pure, and no words.
"Ah," Sarahazi says. It has become quickly proficient at reading expressions. "You do not have a word to express the concept? It is… a place. Sometimes it is an individual, or a group of individuals. Sometimes it can even be… a task? Perhaps it would better to say an occupation, a project. And when you go to this place, or you are with these people, undertaking this task – it is as though you have undertaken a long journey, and perhaps it has been a hard journey, but now it is over, and it is here, in this place, with these people and doing these things, that you belong, that you find ease."
Nyota thinks about it. "I understand," she says, and hears the music underneath her voice.
"I must return to the meeting," it says, regretfully. "My companions are greatly interested in currency-based economics, and they have a tendency to get over-excited. I fear I must return to restrain them. Thank you again, Lieutenant Uhura."
Nyota nods. "I'll see you on the Enterprise, Sarahazi."
It turns and makes its delicate way across the grass, its breathing apparatus dimly visible below the spreading filaments, and then the doors open and it is gone.
Nyota stands still in the garden for a moment. Night is beginning to fall over Paris; the artificial lights of the world government buildings are switching themselves on as clusters near the horizon. Lifting her gaze, she watches shuttles curving out of the city, leaving trails like curling tissue, heading into spacedocks. Somewhere on the other side of the world, her mother is making dinner, Gaila is packing her things for her, the Enterprise is in geostationary orbit over San Francisco.
Her communicator chirps, and she answers. "Nyota," Spock says, clearly off-duty; his voice is distant, but intimate in the way it whispers her name across space. "Will you be returning to the Enterprise this evening?"
"I don't know yet," Nyota tells him. "I may be needed to escort the Achernari ambassadors in their shuttle, so in that case, yes. Otherwise I'll go back to my mother's and beam up in the morning. I'll let you know."
"Either will be satisfactory. Spock out."
"You're such a romantic, Spock," she tells thin air, and turns to walk towards the doors, breathing in the scent of the flowers, watching the lights of the shuttles and ships playing over the water.
Whatever happens, she's going home.