Tal leans in the doorway of their ramshackle hut, built out of tin and cardboard and stray bits of canvas, watching the Starfleet officers with their crisp uniforms and polished pips moving from tent to hut to shack, talking to the families within. Often they are greeted with coldness or skepticism. One old man across the way throws a packet of Starfleet rations down in the muddy ditch next to his house, yelling that it is “too little, too late!” to the astonished Tellarite who handed it to him. Tal knows how the man feels, but she gives the officer who comes to their door a tentative smile, even sticking out her hand by way of greeting, as she has seen many of the Humans do.
The officer takes Tal’s hand and introduces herself as Captain Silva La Forge. Tal’s cheeks redden a bit with this information. She just shook hands with a real Starship captain!
If Captain La Forge notices Tal’s embarrassment, she doesn’t comment on it. Instead she asks “Is this the Celes residence?” granting this rusty heap a dignity it doesn’t deserve.
“Yes, ma’am.” As an afterthought, she adds, “Sir.” Starfleet calls even their women officers, sir, right?
Captain La Forge smiles and says, “Ma’am is fine.” The captain pauses, evidentially considering how to phrase her next question. “Are you the head of the household?” Tal is only fifteen but she knows plenty of other Bajorans her age and younger who are the oldest members of their families left. Tal is lucky, though. She at least has an aunt, as well as a big, gruff seventeen-year-old cousin, along with the peck of little ones, miscellaneous cousins and siblings, and even a few who don’t belong to anyone but who knew Second Aunt wouldn’t refuse any child who showed up at her doorstep.
Tal shakes her head in response to Captain La Forge’s question. “My aunt’s inside. I can get her if you like.”
The captain and her aunt talk quietly while Tal sits in the corner and bounces baby Pazrel on her knee. He’s a quiet one – never made a sound the whole time they were crossing the Cardassian border, eight of them crammed into a cargo hold meant for hauling barrels of wine – and has none of the rolls and dimples babies are supposed to have. Still, he’s cute in his own way: he’s got that extra ridge between his brows, just like his mother, and tiny pink ears. Experimentally, she gently grasps his right ear, seeing if she can feel his pagh, like the Vedeks do.
Nothing. Pazrel yawns.
The captain comes over and squats down so that she’s eye-level with Tal. “Celes Tal, how would you like to go to school again?”
Tal’s eyes widen. “School? Like a real school?” She hasn’t been to an actual school in years. The prospect of having real teachers and desks and books and everything … but the Cardassians had told them they would rebuild her town’s school and never did. What if Captain La Forge is lying too?
“A real school,” the captain confirms.
“I would like that very much,” Tal says with an uncertain tremor in her voice. She looks at her aunt, who smiles encouragingly. Second Aunt must think it’s a good idea, or she would have shown the captain out.
“Excellent! We’re going to help you build one, right here,” the captain stands again. “And who knows? Maybe you’ll be a Starfleet officer too one day!”
“Me?! A Starfleet officer? I don’t know…”
“Why not? You look like a smart, capable young lady to me.”
Because most people here hate Starfleet officers, though she certainly doesn’t want to say that to the captain. Instead she just says, “Maybe. But I can still go to school either way, right?”
“Of course! It’ll be open to everyone.” La Forge turns to Second Aunt again, “We’re even hoping to have some night classes for the adults in camp.”
“That would be wonderful,” Second Aunt grimaces, “But the adults around here might be a little more difficult to convince than the children.”
La Forge sighs, “I know.” As if on cue, they can once again hear raised voices, both Tellarite and Bajoran, across the street. La Forge firmly adjusts the jacket of her uniform and bids farewell to Tal and her aunt before heading out the door.
Second Aunt takes a squirming Pazrel out of Tal’s arms and begins to nurse him. “You know, you’d make a wonderful officer, Tal,” she says.
“You think so?”
She chucks Tal under the chin, “I know so.”
“Now, go find your brother and sister for me.” She blows a stray hair out of her eye. “They should have been back twenty minutes ago… I need that bread!”
Tal assures her aunt that she’ll find them and ducks out of the shack, trying to ignore the confrontation across the way as she picks her way through the muddy streets in search of her wayward siblings. Despite the grimness of her surroundings and the precariousness of their existence here on this desolate planet, Tal allows herself to begin to feel some hope for the future.