Jaylah has to wear the uniform.
She has to wear the goddamn uniform, and it’s terrible. It’s bright red, for one thing – the color of those stop signs on the corners of streets that the traffic wardens keep giving her tickets for ignoring. In her old home, Jaylah never had to yield to bright red signs. She could go and come as she pleased, provided she take out anyone who got in her way. When she tried to take out a biker speeding into the intersection she wanted to cross, she was arrested for “assaulting a fellow citizen” and her weapons were taken away. Jaylah does not like red.
It’s bright red, and it has all of this official insignia. Official insignia means rank, and rank means orders, and orders mean people who have no right to tell her what to do telling her what to do. She’s never had to “sit properly” or “chew with her mouth closed” or “not punch someone in the face when they insult her” before, and she doesn’t see why she should have to now just because some dick with more gold bars on his jacket says she should. And when she tried to rip the bars off to replace them with insignia of her own design, she was fined for “defacing Starfleet property” and had to get a new uniform. Jaylah does not like insignia.
It has all of this official insignia, and it doesn’t fit right. No matter which size she tries on, the damn thing is always too loose in the back or too tight in the front, the pants won’t go on or the shirt won’t cover up an acceptable amount of cleavage. She’s not allowed to alter it to fit her figure. She’s not allowed to wear other clothes that look similar. And it’s not even that it doesn’t look good – it’s impractical. When she kicked her leg up to her nose to knock some asshole’s lights out in her joke of a self-defense class, the seam on her butt ripped in half. Jaylah does not like this uniform.
And it’s not just that the uniform doesn’t fit right. Jaylah doesn’t fit right. She walks down the street and people stare, sits in class and people stare, orders drinks enough to finally “take the edge off,” whatever that fucking means, and people stare. She doesn’t care what people think, but she does care for having one minute – just one, just any minute at all – to herself. And that never quite happens.
She’s a classic rock drumbeat set behind a string quartet and instructed to play with the correct rhythm, and that’s just not how she rolls.
But the thing is, Jaylah has to wear the goddamn uniform.
Because the uniform means Starfleet – it means classes on subjects she’d never even dreamed of and people from all across the galaxy and a chance to prove herself in front of the whole universe. Or something like that. It’s what James T says when he calls her two weeks in and pries her with questions until she lets loose with exactly what she thinks about this fine establishment with its rules and its manners and its uniforms.
He tells her about his first year at Starfleet. About how hard it was for him to adjust to real challenge after spending his life in bars and yada yada yada – to be honest, she tunes most of that part out. But when he’s done telling her some story about a barfight or an Enterprise for ants or something, he asks her a question.
“Are you learning?”
She looks at him as though he’d just asked her if she knew how to throw a punch, because of course she’s learning. Languages and engineering, botany and physics. Anatomy of species she didn’t know existed a few months ago, technology that could one day save her life. How to get an engine back on when a ship is under attack and how to help a human with a vagina when they’re going through their menstruation cycle.
And outside of class, she’s learning how to drink, how to use money, how to play rugby, how to talk to people instead of just fighting – the list goes on and on. She lists new skills for about ten minutes before she realizes James T is laughing at her.
“See?” he says. “You like the uniform.”
She doesn’t like the uniform. She hates the uniform. But she knows what he’s talking about.
James T isn’t the only member of the Enterprise crew to call her.
They all call her. Incessantly. More than she’d like, and definitely more than she ever asked for. She actually isn’t sure how they ever got her number, considering she only set it up so that she’d have something for people to call to set up times to fight. (Not that anyone has asked her to set up times to fight yet, but she wants to be prepared.)
The first one is Montgomery Scotty, at the end of her first week. He gets three words into asking her how she’s doing before he notices the mechanical engineering textbook on her desk and starts demanding to help her with her homework – “because I was top of my class, you know, and not just because of natural talent, I wasn’t born knowing how to take apart ship engines and put them back together despite common myth.”
She crosses her arms and stares at him for about half an hour as he rambles on about engines and starships and, possibly, alcohol, she’s not sure in that weird, barely comprehensible accent of his. It’s good staring practice. (And if she calls him the next week to demand an explanation of how dark matter works, nobody needs to know.)
The second call is from McCoy, her first Sunday (days of the week have names here, something she’s still getting used to) precisely five hours before she was planning on waking up. He wants to know if she’s eating right. She gestures to ten empty ramen containers behind her and asks if that counts. He launches into a lecture on self-care. This ritual repeats on a weekly basis until she learns that his lectures make an excellent backing track to solving integrals, and starts saving her advanced calculus problem sets for Sunday mornings.
Third to call is James T, with his grand speeches on duty and challenge and whatever else he seems to think will impress her. He’s mostly unsuccessful until he starts talking about his drinking habits – he explains which drinks will cause which emotions and which side-effects, and she takes notes. Rigorously. A month in, she begins giving him field reports on her nights out, partially to test herself on how much she can remember of them and mostly to make him jealous of her alcohol tolerance (which, according to him, is ten times that of his own during his prime.)
Chekov calls asking for updates on his favorite sports teams – he never has enough time to catch a full soccer game. Once he explains why kicking around a little white ball is so important, Jaylah starts recording matches for him, then eventually watching herself. Sulu calls first to convince her to buy some plants (succulents make great listeners, according to him), then to give her instructions on how not to kill those plants. The succulents mostly end up listening to her favorite rock station, but they seem to enjoy it. Uhura calls with explanations of colloquial expressions and suggestions to improve Jaylah’s fashion sense. Her fashion sense, Jaylah has always thought, is just fine – but after a lecture on the power of business casual, she goes out and buys several blazers.
Other crew members call to offer to help with her homework, or to give her suggestions for things to do in San Francisco, or just to ask how she’s doing. She’s surprised how many people call just to ask how she’s doing. The last time this many people cared about her wellbeing was before her family’s ship crashed. (And it’s strange – she can finally think about that crash without having to sit curled up in a ball under her bed for hours. Well – maybe not strange. She thinks it might be what McCoy calls “healthy.”)
And Mr. Spock calls. Mr. Spock has a knack for calling exactly when she needs him – that is to say, exactly when she’s hungover and has an exam that morning. And he always tells her exactly what she needs to hear – that is to say, that it would be illogical not to believe she can do this.
Classes are actually not that difficult.
Jaylah’s always been a quick study. It’s how she learned to hunt on her own, fight on her own, rig up music to the Franklin’s sound system on her own. And now, survival is easy – food comes from places called “supermarkets” and water comes out of taps in every building and nobody’s actively trying to kill her (most of the time, anyway) – so she can use all her energy taking notes, reading textbooks, trying to figure out what exactly is going on in the universe and what her place is in it.
She does well on exams, remembers all her material, impresses her professors. Classes go surprisingly well. But the hard part of the Academy, she quickly figures out, is interacting with people.
Jaylah isn’t sure what a “conversation” is, much less how to have one. She has never read an etiquette guide in her life. She either misses punchlines or laughs so loudly the whole room stops and stares. She’s been kicked out of every library she’s stepped foot into. And she definitely has no idea how to convince the girl in her botany class with the short brown hair and the brilliant green eyes and the smile that could singlehandedly power a star system that the two of them should spend a lot more time together. And that some of that time should involve mouth-on-mouth activity.
Jaylah spends six weeks staring at the girl intensely between slides of plant diagrams in the hopes that attention will somehow breed reciprocated attention. When that doesn’t work, she switches to pointedly looking away from the girl in the hopes that “playing hard to get” will summon attention. That second tactic is even less successful than the first.
Then, one chilly November morning, Jaylah thinks back to James T’s birthday party – how Uhura had moved across the room gracefully and elegantly as a queen, how she’d winked at Mr. Spock as though she expected the world to be handed to her on a golden platter, how he’d attended to her every need for the entire night.
Jaylah attempts to move gracefully and elegantly and to wink at that girl in her botany class as though she expects the world to be handed to her on a golden platter, and ends up knocking over three desks, nearly giving someone a concussion, and spilling a rare sample of moss from a planet in deep space. But the girl laughs and gives Jaylah her number – and that’s enough for Jaylah to spend the rest of the day grinning.
One night, stumbling home from her newest favorite bar (it changes every week), Jaylah stumbles upon an old drumset.
It’s missing a couple of screws, two of the drums have ripped heads, and the crash symbol is bent in half. Jaylah decides immediately that it is hers to love and bang on forever. She carries the whole thing up to her room one piece at a time, and manages to only break one more drum tripping on the stairs.
She’s never played a musical instrument before and she certainly doesn’t have the time or money for lessons, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she has something loud – something that fills her room with sound that belongs to her, sound that can’t question her or tell her what to do, sound that she could beat a thousand enemies to. Sound that is loud and hers.
Playing on her drumset reminds Jaylah of blasting classic rock in the Franklin. She never thought she’d miss the place she spent years in exile, but sometimes, she feels something – something calling for rocks and fights and her against the wilderness. Montgomery Scotty says it’s called “nostalgia.” All she knows is that when she bangs on her drums, it makes that feeling – not go away, exactly, but recede a little, as though the streets aren’t so narrow and the buildings aren’t so restrictive and the people aren’t so terrifying. As though she could actually live here for four years.
And then, a few weeks after she finds her drums, a guy who lives across the hall hears her practicing and thinks she’s pretty good – and before she entirely knows what’s happening, she’s in a band and has three new best friends and one new unsteady source of income. Drumming is, Jaylah starts to realize, something she can really do.
The more time she spends at the Academy, the more she’s discovering that there are a lot of things she can really do. Her uniform fits better every day.
Near the end of first semester, Jaylah’s roommate finally asks –
“Why are people from the Enterprise always calling you?”
“Because,” Jaylah says. “They’re my crew.”
“Your crew,” her roommate repeats. Her roommate is seven feet tall with skin the color of the sky just before a storm. Surprise is not a good look on her.
“Yeah. We ran a mission together once,” Jaylah explains. “I saved their asses.”
Her roommate stares for exactly forty-one seconds (Jaylah counts), then returns to her Klingon homework. Jaylah grins, and starts drumming a rhythm on her desk, loud and pulsing.
The Enterprise, she thinks, is like an orchestra. It’s full of individual instruments – all playing entirely separate melodies, but each unable to function without the others. Each unable to function without the others, and all of them together harmonizing into music powerful enough to scare away vast armies.
The Enterprise is like an orchestra. And, like any orchestra, it needs a good drummer.
The next day, Jaylah tacks a picture of the Enterprise’s crew on the wall above her bed – rule that only blue painter’s tape can be used for dorm decoration be damned.