July, 2353 – Paris Residence, Belvedere
“You don’t want to be here.”
I look up in surprise. The kid’s standing in front of me, the Captain’s son; maybe nine or ten years old, rumpled blond hair and blue eyes too old for his face. I thought I’d been hiding it pretty well, and I feel a stab of irritation that some ten-year-old kid can see through me.
“Is it that obvious?”
He’s been shifting his weight from one foot to the other, eyes wary, but when I answer him he grins and plops down next to me on the chair-swing. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Nobody’s looking anyway.”
“Except you.” I raise my eyebrows at him. “Shouldn’t you be in bed? It’s pretty late.”
He shrugs. “Guess they’ve forgotten about me.”
There’s an unspoken again at the end of that sentence, and unexpectedly, I feel kind of sorry for him. I nudge him with my shoulder. “Feel like showing me around? I heard your sister say your family has a private dock.” I point my chin in the direction of the cove.
The kid perks up. “You like boats?”
He slips off the swing. “I’m not allowed out on the water after dark, but I can show you around the boathouse. C’mon.” He tugs at my hand. I get up and almost over-balance; my foot’s gone to sleep from tucking it beneath me.
It’s a warm night and most of the party guests are still hanging around the garden. Grown-ups in tuxedoes and evening gowns mingle, champagne glasses in hand, polite laughter and stuffy conversation against a backdrop of discreet jazz music. By unspoken agreement, the kid and I avoid the party, skirting the edge of the torchlight onto the step-stones leading to the dock. The bay breeze picks up a little, ruffling my hair and bringing with it the scents of salt and citronella. I feel my mood lift for the first time tonight, and I bend to slip off the high-heeled sandals I’d planned such a different outing for, hooking the straps over my fingers. We follow the winding path downwards as crepe myrtle and jacaranda give way to pepper trees and native oak, our footfalls deadened on the beaten earth. The solar lights marking the edges of the path are dim, and I’m glad the kid’s so familiar with this terrain; there are stones and tree-roots criss-crossing the track and it would be easy to stumble.
And then the densely-clustered forest gives way to open ground that slopes all the way down to the bay, and I stop in my tracks, raising my face as the salt breeze picks up my hair and tosses it. Below us, the shoreline is dotted with rickety wooden jetties where small yachts and dinghies sway against their tethers. The moon is so low and bright it outshines the stars and unfurls a golden carpet across the open water. The only sounds I can hear are the soft sighing of the wind through the trees behind us and the slap of small waves against the shore.
I follow the kid down to the boathouse, a small, paint-peeling weatherboard shack that sits to one side of the nearest jetty.
“In here,” he says.
I follow him in, ducking through the low doorway. Inside it’s larger than I’d expected. There’s a pristine four-man yacht tethered to a wooden post, its sails tucked down under a tarpaulin, a couple of canoes and a small dinghy. A rough timber walkway, just wide enough for a single person, hugs the inside edge of the boathouse.
“Watch your step,” he warns, pointing to a tangle of fishing net heaped on the walkway. He waves an arm at the dinghy. “That one’s mine. Well, my sisters’ too, but they don’t use it anymore.”
“It’s nice.” I turn to look at the yacht. My family goes sailing every year or so at our lakeside cabin, but our yacht is nowhere near as flashy as this one.
“My dad’s pride and joy,” he says without inflection, following my gaze.
Instinct warns me not to praise it, so I shrug disinterestedly. “Want to go sit on the jetty?”
I glance at him in the murky light and something in his eyes tells me I’ve passed some kind of test. I don’t know why, but it makes me smile.
“This way,” he says. He rummages in a small cabinet and holds up a couple of snack bars, then leads me out of the boathouse and onto the jetty. We sit on the edge, our feet dangling over the water. He passes me a snack bar and we munch in companionable silence for a while.
“So how come you didn’t want to be here tonight?” he asks eventually.
I shrug, some of my earlier mood settling on me again. “I had other plans. My parents kind of forced me to come.” I lean back on my elbows. “I start at the Academy in a couple of months and they said I’d meet people tonight who’ll be important for my Starfleet career.”
“Like my dad?”
“I guess so, yeah.”
“Did you talk to him?”
I think back to my conversation with Captain Paris. He’d asked me which track I’m taking, and when I told him science he’d clapped me on the shoulder and told me to consider him as my advisor when I start my second-year project. I only take the best and brightest, Katie, he’d said, but somehow I suspect you’ll be one of those.
“Yeah, I talked to him,” I answer. “He seems nice.”
The kid looks away. “Yeah,” he mutters.
I don’t really know what to say to that, so I stay quiet. The kid swings his feet and picks at a splintered section of the cross-plank we’re sitting on. “How come you want to be in Starfleet?” he asks.
I open my mouth to tell him what I tell everyone: that I want to discover stellar phenomena and understand them, that I want to explore distant stars, that I want to be a part of something greater than myself. And all those things are true, but what I say to this kid, this strange, wise-eyed boy, is “I want to make my dad proud of me.”
He turns that blue gaze on me and gives me a half-smile that’s far too bitter for a kid so young. I don’t really know what to make of it, so I turn away to watch the moon on the water.
“So what were you supposed to be doing tonight?” he asks after a while.
“I had a date.” I sound sulky even to myself, still smarting from the injustice of it. Especially as Phoebe got out of coming here by claiming she had to work on some art project. “My boyfriend booked us into a hotel.”
“You mean like, for the night?”
“Yeah. It was supposed to be special, but my parents decided to screw that up for me.”
“You were going to do it with him,” he realises.
It’s the expression he uses – do it with him – that brings me up short. It’s so euphemistically dirty, so juvenile, and until this moment I’ve almost forgotten that I’m talking to a ten year old kid. Though what else would I call what I was planning to do with Cheb tonight? Have sex? Make love? Fuck?
“Yeah,” I answer eventually. “I guess that was my plan.”
“How come?” he asks. “Do you love him?”
I can’t help smiling at the innocence of his question. But then I think about how to answer him, and my smile fades. Even though Cheb and I have said the words I’ve never actually believed them. I’m pretty sure Cheb says them to get into my pants, and I return the sentiment because that’s what’s expected of me. Because even in the twenty-fourth century, nice girls – nice, well-bred, educated Admirals’ daughters – don’t give up their virginity to boys they don’t love.
“I don’t know,” I admit. “I like him a lot. Plus I’m sick of being the only eighteen year old virgin I know.”
I can’t believe I just said that aloud. Blushing, I hunch away from him, this kid who can apparently make me spill my secrets without even trying.
“I bet you’re not,” he says wisely. “Pete Henworth told everyone he French-kissed Salma Bailey at camp last week and it turned out he was lying.”
I can’t help laughing. “You’re probably right.”
The breeze kicks up over the water and I shiver a little, and the kid takes his jacket off and drapes it over my shoulders. For a moment I’m too surprised to speak. It’s such a sweet and observant thing to do, and he does it so naturally, as if it’s of no consequence. Cheb is well brought up too, but I don’t think he’s ever noticed me the way this kid notices me.
“Thanks,” I manage, swallowing against a completely unexpected lump in my throat. I bump my shoulder against his. “You know, I’m actually glad I came tonight.”
“Me, too,” he grins. “Anyway, everybody else in there is like a hundred years old.”
“Your sisters are about the same age I am.”
“Yeah, but you’re different.”
“Sure. All they care about is talking to people they think are important.”
“Like your dad,” I murmur.
To be honest, I’m glad I got to talk to Captain Paris tonight. I want to graduate first in my Academy class. I’ll work my behind off to do it, but it can only help to make an impression on people with influence. People like the Captain.
Maybe my parents were right about me coming to this party. It’s not like Cheb is going to turn down the chance to screw me some other night, is it?
Maybe I’m not so different after all.
That train of thought makes me uncomfortable, so I change the subject. “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask the kid.
“I used to want to join the Federation Navy,” he says without hesitation.
“You’re really into sailing, huh?”
“Yeah.” Then the light fades from his eyes. “But my dad says I’m going to be in Starfleet.”
I turn to look at him. “You know, you won’t always have to do what your dad says.”
“You don’t know my dad,” he mutters. “Anyway, if I join Starfleet I can be a pilot.”
“But is that what you really want?”
“I love flying. My dad lets me go in the flight sims whenever he gets stuck taking me to his office. I’m already on level seven.”
“Level seven?” I’m seriously impressed. Cadets in the flight controller stream usually don’t reach level seven until the end of their first year.
“Yeah. Commander Timmons says I’m a dead cert for Nova Squadron when I get to the Academy.”
If he’s that good at the age of ten, he’ll probably out-fly the helmsman of the Enterprise by the time he’s a cadet. “I bet your dad’s proud of you.”
He shifts away from me, picking at the splintered planks on the jetty. “My dad says I waste too much time on comics and stuff.” He changes his voice, making it gruff and harsh, obviously quoting his father. “‘You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t focus, Thomas.’”
I can’t help blinking. “What does he want you to focus on?”
“Advanced subspace geometry, astrophysics, survival strategies, interspecies protocol, warp theory …”
My eyes get wider with each tick of his fingers. Some of the Academy courses he’s naming, most cadets don’t even take until their second or third year. “But you’re just a kid,” I interrupt him. “When are you supposed to have fun?”
“Fun won’t make me an admiral,” he says, obviously quoting again.
“Do you want to be an admiral?”
“I just want to fly,” he answers, somewhat plaintively.
Impulsively, I put my arm around his shoulders and he leans into me without hesitation. “I meant what I said, you know. When you’re grown up you can decide what you want to be.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“I –” My mouth opens, then shuts. “I’ve wanted to be in Starfleet since I was younger than you are.”
“Because of your dad?”
“Partly,” I admit. “Okay, more than partly, but it’s honestly what I want to do. I know my dad is proud of that, but he’d be just as proud of me if I wanted to do something else. My sister wants to be an artist and he’s just as proud of her.”
“You’re lucky,” he says softly. Then he yawns, suddenly and overwhelmingly.
“You should be in bed.” I check my chrono. “It’s almost midnight.”
“I don’t want to go back yet,” he admits.
I shift back from the jetty’s edge and tug him down so his head is resting on my lap. “Take a nap if you want,” I invite. “I won’t let you fall in the water.”
“Thanks,” he says, yawning again. He closes his eyes and his breathing evens out, and when I’m pretty sure he’s asleep I rest my hand on his head, combing my fingers through his hair.
They find us there about an hour later – his parents and mine. They’re worried; they’ve been looking for us for some time, apparently. My mother is holding my wrap. I slip the kid’s jacket off my shoulders and hand it to Mrs Paris.
I watch Captain Paris closely as he lifts the still-sleeping boy in his arms. He cradles him to his chest, and although his face is set and severe, his eyes are not.
“Thanks for looking after him, Katie,” he says to me.
“He looked after me, too,” I answer, and my father slings an arm around me as we walk back up to the house.