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Chin Up. Smile.

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Clumsy. Strange. Awkward. She heard their whispers, barely muffled by locker doors, carrying in sleek white hallways with shining tile floors and bright fluorescent lights. They’d followed her from school to school, from one social group to another. Friends, she found, were hard to come by when you were just a little too smart, a little too loud, and a little too weird for the people that surrounded you.

Keep your chin up, Silly. Smile. You have more personality and brains than the lot of them put together , her grandfather had said to her many times.

He’d said it in first grade when Danny Parks pushed her down on the playground and threw bark chips at her, saying she had messy hair and no one would ever like her.

He’d said it in fourth grade when everyone was invited to Grace’s sleepover party and she was left out.

“The snoring, you see, it keeps the other girls awake,” Grace’s mother had explained to hers, as if that would heal a nine-year-old’s broken heart.

In Freshman year, he’d said it yet again when the boy who’d taken her to prom left her standing outside the gymnasium alone at the end of the dance. She’d spent hours straightening and taming her wild red hair into the sophisticated twist her mother favored. Her dress had been blue, like the midnight sky, the skirt printed with a perfect reproduction of the Orion Molecular Cloud in pinks and purples with tiny sparkling crystals to stand in for stars. It was the most beautiful dress she’d ever seen and she’d been so proud to wear it.

Chin up. Smile.

The first day of eighth grade at the fancy private school for gifted students she’d won acceptance to, her history teacher asked them how they were going to make their mark on history. Who among them would be the next Jonathan Archer, Zephram Cochran, or Gabriel Belle? How were they going to make the universe a better place? She was the first to raise her hand, for once remembering not to blurt out her answer, her bottom bouncing on the hard metal seat of her desk as if loaded with springs.

Mrs. Eggers, a middle-aged woman with a face made up of sharp angles that always made her look severe and cross, surveyed the room before finally calling on her.

“Tilly. What do you plan to do?”

She mustered all the self-control she could, sat up in her chair with her back as straight as a board, the way she’d seen the soldiers do when they stood at attention during the First Contact parade in the city every year. “I’m going to join Starfleet. I’ll be captain one day, and I’ll discover things no one has ever seen before.”

Grace, who’d followed her to this school, and her new group of friends, giggled before Mrs. Eggers stopped them with a glare. She’d not abided interruptions to her lessons back in seventh grade World History, and certainly wasn’t going to change in eighth grade Interstellar History. After class, Mrs. Eggers pulled her aside and explained carefully, each sentence punctuated in a way that made Sylvia think she could see the periods, that Starfleet required discipline.

She could read between the lines and the message was loud and clear. Starfleet required discipline. She, with her tendency to go on an on in a conversation, to speak over people, to pry into matters that were none of her business, to correct teachers and peers when she knew she was right and they were wrong—she, the person she’d been born to be, was not capable of the kind of discipline Starfleet required.

How little they knew about her.  She would show them all.

Chin up. Smile .

San Francisco was a dream, everything she’d ever imagined it would be. The Golden Gate Bridge stood in the distance, a wonder in orange against a crystal blue sky dotted with bright white clouds. There was supposed to be fog in San Francisco, so her mother said, but there was no trace of it when she stepped off the transporter pad and into the city, smiling to the adorable operator with his sleek black hair, dimpled cheeks, and crisp blue Starfleet uniform. Though there was no fog, her nose caught a hint of salt and fish that reminded her of home. Comforting, in a way.

The Academy stood before her, tall and imposing, the street in front bustling with a colorful throng of people. She had to apologize more than once as she bumped into them, her eyes fixed on her destination, Starfleet issued knapsack packed with the requisite number of belongings—nothing more or less because rules were rules—slung over her shoulder. Once, she stopped and stared wide-eyed at an angry Andorian who’d fallen victim to her inattention. His blue face had turned almost purple, and his antennae twitched as he glared and she made another apology, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, to make up for staring. Andorians had little need of venturing to small cities in Washington state, so she’d never seen one up close.

“Engineering and Sciences enter to the left. Medical and Academic to the right. If you aren’t sure where your major falls, please consult one of the mentors lined up in the front,” A stern voice, amplified by megaphone, called into the crowd of new cadets streaming in from all directions, like her with bags were thrown over their shoulders. Some hugged goodbye family and friends who’d accompanied them. She’d come alone. Her mother and father had tried, but she’d put her foot down. As much as she loved them, having her mother, in her well-meaning way, try to smooth out her hair while peppering her with advice to be anyone but herself would have only added to the anxiety.

Couldn’t she be herself for once, now that she was so far from home?

Chin up. Smile.

Her name was engraved in white on a shiny black plate outside: Rm 203B - Sylvia Tilly. It was the only name on the door; a roommate was one experience she would have to do without—the powers that be concerned her snoring would disrupt another cadet’s ability to learn.

The room was small and contained two beds with grey sheets and a black comforters tucked into the mattresses with perfect military corners. A comm panel was the only decoration on the stark whitewashed walls, but she had a small window that looked over a field where the marching band was practicing. If she tried hard enough, she could imagine she heard the brass braying and drums tapping away.

On one bed, folded neatly, rested her uniform. On the ground, a pair of black leather boots, polished to shining, stood at attention. She changed even before putting away her belongings, and the surrealness of the day morphed into something real and solid with the way the heavily starched fabric scratched at her skin.

“Cadet Sylvia Tilly, Orientation will begin in fifteen minutes in Lecture Hall 324,” the computer announced. Right, time to go.

She reached out for the last piece of her uniform, still on the bed, shining against the comforter. Her cadet’s pin; the Starfleet insignia with a single line indicating she was a freshman. Her name and major were engraved on the back. She pinned it to her chest and stood before the only mirror in the room, shoulders back and nose tilted firmly towards the ceiling—trying the pose on for size. With a sharp nod at her image and a deep breath to calm the butterflies fluttering madly in her stomach, she turned to face the next challenge.

Chin Up. Smile.

Thirty-two students were gathered in the lecture hall, a mixture of the more esoteric engineering specialties, all of them fidgeting with their uniforms, tugging on sleeves and adjusting collars as if the uniform were the problem and not their nerves. No one looked up when she entered. No one approached her to say hello. She’d imagined people would be friendlier here than at home. More full of excitement. Cadets from all over the universe as wide eyed and bushy tailed as herself, ready to make new friends and start new adventures. Instead, only this solemn, nervous, silence greeted her. She’d never been one for silence.

She slipped into a group of young women congregated in the back, determined to introduce herself and start down the path of getting to know people. She’d told her mother not to worry. It would be different this time. But when she opened her mouth, the words tumbled out in a rush, rolling downhill and gathering speed like marbles down the tracks she used to build with her father as a child. “Hi, I’m Sylvia, I’m here for theoretical engineering, what about you? This is really, really exciting isn’t it—I mean, I don’t think I have ever been so excited in my entire life; it’s a dream!”

A raised eyebrow on one woman. Nervous fidgeting from another. A pretty blonde, with smooth straight hair like Sylvia’s mother always wished upon her, took a step back, eyes pointedly focused elsewhere. Sylvia knew that look too and backed away with a sigh, turning her back to the group. It pained her, the effort she exerted to keep her shoulders straight as she felt their gazes burn into her back.

Why could she never control herself?                                                                                                                                                

A final year cadet who’d gone a little heavy on the spit and polish this morning rescued her, stepping to the front and calling them forward. Sylvia tried to stand even taller, but as the cadet began what was definitely a practiced speech, a young man with messy brown hair that fell into his eyes burst into the room panting, eyes darting around until they landed on her. She was the only one looking at him, the others stiffly focused on the cadet up front.

He moved across the room, bumping into a few people, who shuffled out of the way annoyed, until he stood next to her. “Did I miss anything important?”

She gave him a sidelong look, surprised he’d sought her out in the first place. “Nothing important, she really just got started.”

The speaker, whose name Sylvia missed in all the excitement, stopped speaking and looked directly at them. “Cadets, is there anything important I should be aware of?”

Fire rose in her cheeks and her voice came out almost too quiet to be heard in the front. “No, Ma’am.”

Remember your first impressions, her mother had coached. Well, she’d failed at that. Day one and she was certain she was already the weird one. Oh well, she was used to it. So much for new beginnings.

Chin up. Smile.

Last night, over a lovingly prepared meal of smoked salmon, rice pilaf, and roasted fresh vegetables from her grandmother’s garden, she’d been unable to talk about anything but the Welcome to the Academy party and how much fun it would be to meet everyone. She’d regaled her family with all the wonderful things she would see and do.

Her grandmother had smiled and patted her hand as she handed her a slice of double chocolate cake with a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. “Oh Silly, you’ll shine at the academy, how could you not? We’re so proud of you.”

Now that she was here, she wasn’t so sure this had been a good idea. She worried that Cadet Lane, the mentor leading their group earlier, hated her. Not just for interrupting, but for all the questions she’d asked about pretty much everything as they made their way through the grounds. She hadn’t been able to stem her curiosity. More than once, Cadet Lane’s dark eyes had flashed in annoyance. Her classmates, too, had groaned, so she also worried she’d already damaged her chances at making friends with others in similar majors.

Now, she was certain she would pass the party alone.

Status quo, really.

Still, she was here, and she would make the most of it. At least there would be food and drink, and her stomach growled, demanding she feed it. There’d be no going back to her room to call Mom with her tail tucked between her legs. There would be no failure. To fail meant proving everyone right. Sylvia Tilly was stronger than anyone gave her credit for, and they would see when she graduated four years from now.

One breath.

Two.

Once the sun had gone down an hour before, the autumn air had cooled quickly and it tickled the inside of her nose. A hint of savory wafted from the auditorium’s open doors. Hundreds of voices combined with clinking dishware and the music of brass and strings floated on the breeze that brushed her cheeks. The party was in full swing and she was fashionably late.

Here goes nothing .

In the organized chaos of hundreds of uniformed bodies and tables with white cloths and floral centerpieces, she found the food table and piled her plate high. A little of everything. No one stood nearby to remind her not to eat her feelings tonight. At the bar, she ordered a mixed juice beverage she couldn’t pronounce, but thought was pretty with its whipped cream topper and a garnish of fresh skewered fruits. She found an empty table near the buffet and sat, resigned to her fate. After all, she’d spent years dining alone, what difference did one more night make? Tomorrow she would try again.

“Is this seat taken?” The voice sounded familiar. She looked up from her plate to see the messy haired man from earlier and noted with a small smile that his badge had been pinned on slightly crooked, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was cute.

She took a deep breath.

Be cool.

“Yes.” Whoops. Start over. “I mean no… I mean it’s taken now that you are here—it’s yours, no one else is sitting there. I’m Tilly. Cadet Tilly, but you can probably call me Sylvia if we’re not in class.”

He stared at her for a moment, brows pinched towards his nose in a look she’d learned long ago meant someone was trying to puzzle out what she’d said, which meant her words had come out at warp factor four and run together like the stars outside the window of a starship.

A confused moment passed, then his eyebrows raised and he smiled a full toothy grin. He set down a plate practically overflowing and extended his hand. She looked at it for a moment, hardly able to believe someone was approaching her first, and then took it firmly, remembering how important her father said a good handshake was to success. His palm was warm, smooth, and dry.

“Aaron Lee, nice to meet you. Sorry I got you into trouble during our orientation this afternoon. I’m guessing you’re one of us nerds who couldn’t pick a normal engineering specialty if you were in there with me? Mine’s theoretical engineering; doubt I’ll find someone else crazy enough to specialize in it in their first year.” He spoke quickly, and his hands now twisted nervously in front of him. There was a hint of the Great Lakes in the way he stretched his vowels, telling her he was even further from home than she was. He took a seat at the table, pressing his palms to the tabletop beside his plate, silencing his hands. “I still can’t believe I’m here. My parents thought I was insane to join Starfleet. They thought I should stay at home and become a doctor, or maybe teach physics.”

Did she hear him correctly? The first person willing to talk to her and he was also into theoretical engineering?

“Well then, you got lucky tonight,” she blurted out.

He raised his eyebrows and heat rose in her cheeks. Wonderful. Was the room dark enough to hide her freckles?

“I mean, that’s my major too. That’s me, certifiably insane, at least my father says I am too. I don’t know what they thought I should do, but I’m pretty sure they hoped I’d grow out of wanting to join Starfleet.”

He smiled and laughed, a single dimple decorating his cleanly shaven cheek. “Well, I’m glad you did. Since we’re going to be stuck together, we might as well be friends.”

Chin Up. Smile.

Out in the cold bay air, curls loosened from the confines of her bun and blowing in the wind, she looked up to the stars. Jump pods darted across the clear sky, moonlight glinting off their hulls. Bright and full, the moon smiled down on her as well. When she was a child, only five-years-old the moon had seemed so far away, impossible to reach. She’d wished on a star then, wished to set foot on its rocky surface just to see with her own eyes what was there. Tonight, she did not wish upon the stars. Tonight she made them a promise. Soon, she would fly among them and ask them to tell her their secrets.