Earth is the most beautiful place in the universe. My uncle had told me that every day for almost as long as I can remember. My father said anyone who’s in Starfleet always said that about earth because that’s what anyone said about coming home – even if it’s Vulcan or Romulus.
Something about my uncle has always bothered my father. My mother thinks it’s because he became a gardner instead of joining Starfleet. She always knew it bothered him, that and knowing my uncle and mother used to date. When I ask my mother why she married my father over my uncle, she always said, “He had a way about him.” I still don’t know what that means.
My uncle wanted to make Captain before he was thirty five, but he’s still in security. My aunt said he hasn’t been given a chance to prove himself for a promotion. My father said it’s because he didn’t test well enough. Everyone forgets all the engineering you have to know to be a Captain. My uncle was a good leader and he was smart, but, like my dad said, he wasn’t “that smart.”
My father has named plenty of reasons for not liking Starfleet. He said they’re heads are big because they’ve breathed that artificial air for too long. Makes them think they’re better than “skids.” I’ve only heard my uncle say it once to my father when he was really angry. They were arguing about how the Federation was handling a flood in Burma. My uncle said it was because the local officials were “unlearned.” They never left earth because they weren’t good enough to go on a starship, like my father. I know he felt bad about it afterwards. It was of the only time I’d seen my father cry.
I know my father doesn’t appreciate earth like my uncle does. Always a new story of a Vulcan or even a Klingon saying how blue it is. Sure there were other blue planets, but none were blue like earth is. That’s why Starfleet works so hard to defend it. They’re up there right now, off to some place far away. And they can’t wait until they come back. Like my uncle can’t wait to come back. My father will never understand what that means to him.
I don’t want to be a skid like my father. Even though he tells us to never say it, it’s true. Skids can say they love earth, but not like a Starfleet officer loves earth. Skids don’t have to worry about anything, because they have everything. And they have everything because the Federation makes sure everyone on earth is happy, even a gardner like my father.
My father said the Borg can’t see blue, but my uncle said that’s not true. He said the we’re fighting because they know how blue earth is, too. That’s why all the skids are afraid of the Starfleet officers here. They don’t come to Albuquerque because they want to. They come because they’re trying to get better after being turned.
My uncle said life is never the same once you’re turned. You might have all the things removed that made you a Borg – implants and nano probes and all that, but the memories are still there. Lives of millions of people you never knew. Dreams of those who are long dead. That’s what messes with someone who’s turned the most: your memories are no longer your own. The sound of billions of voices speaking as one. The feeling of being someone and someone else and not anyone at all. I never really understood what that meant. My uncle said you have to be assimilated to really understand. He said it’s like dying, but you’re not really dead. You only live in dreams.
No one knows if it’s really possible to recover all the way once you’re turned. But that doesn’t mean someone who is turned shouldn’t have the chance to live normally.
My father doesn’t think so. “This is why we shouldn’t have gone into space,” he said. “Things out there beyond the craftiest ways of the devil and God.”
Whenever I ask my uncle why the skids are afraid of people who are turned, he shrugs it off. “It’s good they’re afraid. Makes them remember: everyone wants to live in paradise, even the Borg.”
Michael’s father is a skid like mine. Whenever I ask if he’s thinking about joining Starfleet, he points to the men who have been turned. “I’d rather be dead than live that way.” But he doesn’t know. People can be happy in space – happy as they are here. “I’m still going to join,” I said.
“It’s your funeral. Just know, if you’re ever turned, I won’t have anything to with you.”
“There’s no point in living if you feel like you’re dead. You’ll be like a ghost or something, and ghosts scare me.”
“You think they’re ghosts?”
“They should have left them the way they were.”
I can’t say I entirely blame him. His father is one of the drivers for the institute where the turned recover. The ones who are out on the street are better than the ones nobody sees. They can’t go outside because they’re afraid they’re gonna hurt somebody, or themselves.
“David,” Michael said. He’s the only person I know who called his dad by his first name. It always seemed weird to me. “David always tells me they just look like men. Some act like children. Some like beasts.”
Michael is one of my best friends. He and his father have always been really nice. They’re happy like my family and everyone else on earth. But skids are always superstitious. No one talks about the devil or ghosts in Starfleet. There’s no fear in them, even for a race like the Borg. My uncle said it’s hard to let go of what you know. All that skids know is earth. It’s easy to say there’s a devil when you haven’t seen what’s beyond the sky. “What would they say if you told them the sky was an illusion?” I never really thought about it that way.
When it’s day, all we see is earth. We think the sky is blue because earth is blue. But what we’re really looking at is a mirror. We don’t see the stars, or Vulcan or the Borg. It’s easy to say there’s a devil when all you see is a reflection. “A responsible man goes beyond superstition. Drops his ghosts and devils like a child drops his toys. When you start believing in a superstition, you stop believing in truth. And that’s lying.”
Michael and my father think the Starfleet officers here are not men anymore. Maybe if they dropped their superstitions like my uncle talked about, they’d know those who are turned can live again, even if it’s not the kind of living they’re used to.
There’s a house on the outskirts Michael and I like to visit. It’s one of the old looking ones with glass and wood – fallen between Federation zoning. It’s hard to think that anyone could have lived in it. The floor is still covered with carpet and moss. Some of the bathrooms have mirrors in them, like the family who lived there was going to come back one day and start over.
“Are you ready to destroy some ghosts?” I said.
“How about some Borg?”
Michael throws a stone at the top, barely missing the window.
“Not bad for a skid?” Michael picked up a second stone and tossed it. The window shattered. “You ever think you have it all wrong?”
“Have what all wrong?”
“That it’s us who are the ones who are better than them.”
“I don’t think anyone is better than anybody else.”
“That’s Federation talk and you know it.”
“So what if I don’t wanna be a skid?”
“But you are a skid. You’re father’s a skid, your mother’s a skid. What makes you sure you won’t be one?”
“My uncle’s in Starfleet.”
“Have you tested?”
“I’m too young.”
“Then how do you know?”
Something in me burned. I wanted to take a phaser to that house and watch it it turn to dust. I didn’t care if the family was gonna come back. That house was there because people forgot about it. They forgot about that family. Because they couldn’t go any where else. Because they were stupid. They were nothing but a bunch of dumb skids.
I picked up the heaviest rock I could find and I threw it as hard as I could. I didn’t care if it hit the house, as long as it was flying somewhere. I heard a giant thud, cracking glass. Part of the top of the house crumbled.
Michael smirked at me and clapped his hands. “Starfleet doesn’t award throwing rocks. If you’re Klingon, on the other hand . . .”
“Nobody’s there. Unless you’re seeing a ghost.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts.”
When I went to school the next day, everything looked different. I felt like everyone knew now. They knew I wanted to join. They knew because I always said I did. I tried to talk like the officers did, do well on my tests, prepare for the future that I knew was there but was so far off I could never say for sure.
The seniors were lined up for the tests. They’ve looked up places to go in San Francisco, become familiar with its history. You feel alive there like you can never feel alive in Albuquerque. The opportunity to see other people besides terrans for once. To look at the stars and not the reflection. To see what so many others wish they could.
Two weeks from now, all these people will know whether or not they’ll become like their parents. To know nothing but the horizon. The flatness of the land. Maybe this is what my uncle was talking about when he said you’ve died but you’re not really dead. I don’t need to be assimilated to know how it feels to be a Borg. I just need to look at the sunset. I just need to look at my father.
I filed into one of the lines. I knew I was too young, but it doesn’t matter. I just wanted to know where I stood. I’ve seen what staying here does to you. It used to be you could relocate – go to Japan or India and see things you never knew. But the world was larger back then. Not everybody had what everyone else had. Some were poor, others rich. One man’s God was a stranger to another. In paradise, everyone is the same. Going to Russia is the same as going next door, and takes about the same time. You step into a transporter and close your eyes, and like a dream in waking you’re hearing another language. Any confusion is momentary, because your translator will make them talk in english anyway.
That’s what living in paradise is: peace and comfort wherever you go, even if it was once a world away.
I’m get closer to the entrance. Terrans are banned from testing before a certain age because they don’t finish the necessary schooling in time. Certain terrans are given exception, but you have to be recommended for those kinds of tests. I’ve done well on my tests, but no teacher has seen reason to give me a recommendation. “Wait until your senior year. You’ll be ready,” they say. But, until that day comes, I have to wait, not knowing. I can’t wait anymore.
The officer was tall and stiff. He’s done this before. He’s tired from looking at so many skids. His eyes never left his tablet as he went down the list. “Name?”
“You look young for a senior.”
“I heard I should enjoy it while it lasts.”
He didn’t like my joke. He sniffled and moved on.“Access card.”
I handed him my card. He waved it over the tablet. “Good luck.”
The hard part is over. No more lying. It’s just three hours and some questions that stand between me and Starfleet.
The hall was packed from side to side. Almost the entire senior class was there. Sons of drivers and maintenance workers who dream of seeing space. Or at least seeing San Francisco.
A tall Vulcan came in front of the crowd – the first I’d ever seen in person. He looked at us with his cold, Vulcan eyes. It’s the stare I heard my uncle talk about that only Vulcans have. Because they don’t think – but know – they’re better than humans. And for good reason.
No Vulcan has ever been denied entrance into Starfleet, even the ones people consider dumb. My uncle said they don’t know how to enjoy themselves, even half breeds, and for that he wouldn’t trade his inferior terran intellect for all the Vulcan intelligence in the quadrant. But, in that moment, I don’t care how boring life can be for a Vulcan. I just want to pass the test.
“Good morning candidates. I trust you all have prepared vigorously. Note that even the best terrans have been denied entry into Starfleet. Intelligence means nothing without hard work and due diligence. That’s what makes a Starfleet officer. If a question makes you nervous, or you are unfamiliar with its wording, move on and come back to it. You don’t get any points for partially completing your test. With that, I say, do your best. Or, as we like to say on Vulcan, ‘a thing that isn’t shall never be.’”
When I got to my room, I cried. It got so intense that I had trouble breathing. And I felt in that moment what my father felt that day: being inferior to someone, below somebody. That no matter how hard you try, you’ll never be as good as them.
The test was more difficult than anything I ever came across in my classes. Warp technology, calibrating force fields, even occasional questions about anatomy if you should have to save someone’s life in battle. Barely any of it made sense.
The stare that Vulcan gave us, the way that officer didn’t even look at me before I entered the hall, it’s the stare I’ve had when I’ve looked at friends, when I looked at my father. With all the studies I’ve done on how tolerant the Federation is of other races, I can’t believe it when I think about what it feels like to be a skid.
Sure, they say that everyone is equal, that everyone matters and deserves to be happy. That we do what we do for the sole benefit of others. If everyone was truly equal, there wouldn’t be any unhappiness. There wouldn’t be floods. There wouldn’t be frustration or hurt. Everyone would be allowed to go into space and serve on a starship, even if they didn’t test well. People like my father would never cry because they felt they weren’t as good as someone else. I wouldn’t be crying now.
Those who call earth paradise do so because it’s the paradise they created. Because they were smart enough to see what works for most, but not for all. It’s only paradise if you’re one of the people who can enjoy it. For the rest, even if it’s a small number of people, they have to live with Federation dogma, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
They don’t mention that those were the dying words of a Vulcan, not a terran. If people knew, maybe they’d change their minds on what it means to live in paradise – the paradise they were forced to live in rather than chose to. The paradise the Borg want to inhabit because they see its beauty from afar, yet have never had a chance to live in it and see what it’s like.
When my mother came in, I tried to hide my tears, because I knew she’d want to talk if she saw them, and I did’t want to talk. I just wanted to cry.
“Sweetheart?” she said.
I tried to pretend she wasn’t there, but this only made it worse.
She sat on my bed. She wasn’t leaving. “Is everything all right?”
“Tell me the truth, or I’m getting your father.”
She wouldn’t do this unless she really wanted to know. My father may be a gardner, but he was good at reading people, especially me. I know once he sat down, everything would be laid before him. I didn’t want that. “I tested.”
“You know you’re too young.”
“I wanted to know. That’s all.”
“If I was going to be a . . .”
I was about to say it, but I stopped. I knew my parents hated the word skid and what it meant. And if I said it to my mom, she’d get my father for sure.
“It didn’t go well.”
“Have you gotten the results?”
“Not yet, but I know what they’re going to be.”
“How do you know?”
I couldn’t take it any more. I was tired of lying to her. I just wanted out. So I said it. “Because I’m stupid! I hate it here! I hate earth and the federation! I hate that stupid Vulcan and I hate Starfleet! I hate that I’m going to be a dumb skid like you and dad!”
I went for the door. If I stayed in that room any longer I didn’t know what was gonna happen. I couldn’t look at my house. Not my mother, and especially not my dad.
I ran. I ran until my blood was hot and my legs were falling like piles of jelly. And then I ran some more. I didn’t want to think of what was behind me or what was coming. I just wanted to fade away. I wanted to go someplace where I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me.
To despite being in paradise, where everyone is safe and there’s no reason to hide, there’s still places you can go to get away and not be found. It’s where Michael’s father and my father used to go when they wanted to stay away from home for a while, do “adult stuff.” It was where the people who couldn’t stand paradise went when they wanted to forget where they were, or where they had to go the next morning.
Downtown Albuquerque was one of those places. It was one of the few areas in the city that still looked the same as it did long ago, like that house on the outskirts. Only everyone knew it was there. They kept it to remember history. While the rest of the city was made of Federation materials that would last many generations, this place still had faulty twenty first century materials that had to be tended to every now and then so they wouldn’t fall apart.
I wondered if there was a difference between terran history and skid history? Everyone back then stayed on earth, because they didn’t have the knowledge to go anywhere else. Does that mean everyone was a skid? Is a skid nowadays just a terran that doesn’t want to acknowledge there’s a Starfleet, or space exploration? They want to live like people lived in the old days, when Russia and India were a world away, when some had more than others. When the blue sky was enough to see a heaven and worlds beyond. When there wasn’t a Borg, or Vulcans. When there wasn’t a Federation.
No one makes eye contact downtown. Everyone’s always looking the other way. Some people looked at me. They probably weren’t used to such a young kid being around. Makes them self conscious. Makes them remember where they are.
I notice their eyes began to drift. I was no longer the center of attention, but an officer. He was in standard Starfleet uniform. Yellow shirt and low rank, like my uncle. He was very pale and very quiet. And as much as he tried to go unnoticed, every eye is on him. They knew he’s one of the ones who’s been turned. And they’re afraid.
People don’t walk by him, but are repelled, trying to get away so they get as little of what he has as possible. Some skids even believe that nano probes are contagious, and can infect you if you’re not careful. But I knew better.
He went inside and sat down at a bar, immediately clearing everyone away toward the tables and boards. He keeps his head down, trying not to look at anyone. The bartender was nervous, tending to everything he can. He scrubbed a glass, then wiped down the bar, and another glass, then wiped the bar again.
“If you give that thing another rub the varnish is gonna be gone,” said the officer.
The bartender stopped cold and looked at him. “I’m sorry.”
“Did you do something wrong?”
“I don’t know. Did I?”
“You didn’t offer me a drink.”
“Would you like one?”
“People haven’t stopped drinking at bars since I was away, did they?” He looked at one of the men who cleared out. “You.”
The man perked up, his color gone from his face. He might as well have been staring down death. “Y-yes?”
“Where did you get that drink?”
“From him.” He pointed to the bartender.
“It’s settled then.”
“What will you have?” said the bartender.
“Whatever you gave him.”
The bartender nervously poured the beer and set it by the officer, then went back to polishing glasses, trying to busy himself.
“Hey,” said the officer.
The bartender stopped.
“Don’t I need to pay you?”
“It’s on the house.”
The officer shrugged his shoulders and started to drink.
I went inside and sat at the bar, right next to him. No one believed what they were seeing. The bartender became nervous again. After seeing someone who’s turned, I don’t know how a kid can be any worse.
“You’re too young to be in here. Get out,” he said.
The officer cooly put his glass down, and looked into the mug. “He stays.”
“I said he stays.”
The bartender didn’t say anything else. He went back to polishing his mugs, and getting the varnish off the bar as if nothing ever happened.
“Are you afraid of me?” the officer said.
“Because I’m a skid. I don’t know how to be afraid.”
“Are they still using that word?”
“Some things never change.”
“How was it?”
“How was what?”
“Being a Borg.”
“Relaxing. You just sit back and do nothing. No one looks at you funny, has any expectations. Everyone accepts you for who you are.”
“My uncle said it’s like dying, but you’re not really dead.”
“Has your uncle been assimilated?”
“No, but he knows people who have.”
“Is he in Starfleet?”
“Yeah. He’s security, like you.”
“It’s funny. I’ve been on earth for two weeks and the most words I’ve said to anybody have been to a kid. The doctors are gonna love this.”
He laughed and took in more of his beer.
“Why did you join?” I asked.
“Because I wanted to fight for earth. I wanted to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations.”
“No. My parents made me. Said I’d grow up to be a dumb skid if I did what I wanted to do. Last time I heard that word, in fact.”
“What did you want to do?
“I wanted to live in New Zealand, be a writer. Didn’t really care too much for space. ‘Specially if I knew the Borg were waiting for me.”
“They forced you to join Starfleet?”
“You know, kid, the Federation are good people. They believe in helping others. They’d even help the Borg if there was a way. But after all the big words and all the just causes, think about this: the Borg never humiliate their drones. Never call them names. There’s no intolerance. No skids. No nothing. Everyone’s on the same level. They’re all . . .”
“Yeah. Equal. Don’t you wish it could be like that for everybody?”
“Guess being assimilated isn’t as bad as you thought, is it?”
“What the hell does that mean?”
One of the men in the back walked up to the bar, leaning in close to the officer. He’s big, big as a tree. And mean.
The officer takes another drink from his mug. “It means I had a good vacation. But, now I’m back on earth, with all my fellow man and Federation confidants.”
“Are you saying you wish you was a Borg?”
“I’m saying we could learn a thing or two from them.”
“It’s because of sympathizers like you that we’re losing this war.”
“What would you know about it?”
“I know what the news tells me. I know you’re not fit to wear that uniform.”
“I’ll trade you. What are you? A plumber? Soda jerk? Flower shop owner?”
“I’m a mechanic, you prissy son of a bitch.”
“Well, if you’d like to explore the cosmos, live in a cramped space for months on end and wake up not knowing if you’re going to go back to sleep at the end of the day, please.” He took off his comm badge and slid it toward the man. “Take my place.”
His words traveled. Now it wasn’t one man who was at the bar, but four.
He sized them up, then looked over at me. “What do you think, kid? Four skids against a well trained, slightly injured Starfleet defector?”
“I don’t like it. They might kill you.”
“If they do, they’ll be doing me a favor. I never had the life I wanted. All I have are dreams of other people. Happier people who were never in Starfleet. If I die, maybe I can take my pick and choose which one’s the best.”
“Is that what you want?”
“It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” He snatches his comm badge and tosses it to me. “You should leave before this gets ugly.”
The tree man looks at me. “You better listen to him, kid.”
I hop off the stool, and look at the officer’s face. For the first time, I see him smile. “Nobody’s better than anyone else, kid. They just think they are. I learned that from the Borg.”
As I walked into the evening, I could hear the officer’s words carrying out the bar. He had no fear. He may not admit to it, but he was a Starfleet officer. “So, boys. Ready to boldly go where no man has gone before?”
“Hold still . . .”
When I got back home, my father was waiting for me. He said nothing, just stared. On any other day I would be scared or mad. Seeing my father, the gardner, the skid I never wanted to be, he was transformed. He wasn’t a gardner, or a skid, but a man.
“I heard about what you said.”
As much as I was happy to see him, I knew I was going to get it – every bit and more. My father is a calm man, but when he gets angry, he’s much different. He’s no longer welcoming. He talks like a mountain, and you feel so small. I prepared for the worst.
He looked into my eyes. “I know you didn’t mean it. I was frustrated when I tested.”
“You tested for Starfleet?”
“Everyone does. I wanted to get out of here. Drop the place like an old rag and never look back.”
“I realized I was going to be the same man in Starfleet as I was as a civilian. So I became a gardner. And I met your mother, and one thing led to another. And here I am.” “So you could have joined Starfleet, but you didn’t?”
“I’ll never know, I guess. Suppose I could have been a great Captain, or even a great security officer like your uncle.”
“Do you regret it?”
He looked at me, as if the words were already there, waiting to be said. “I don’t need to explore the galaxy to find what I love. I have you and your mother. That’s all I need.”
I can’t explain what came over me. Before I knew it, I was hugging him with all my strength. I hadn’t felt that good in a while. All the hate, the bitterness, hating myself and everyone else went away. I let go.
“What was that for?”
“I just want you to be happy.”
“I want you to be happy, too, even if you’re in Starfleet. Just make sure your head doesn’t get too big, or you’ll end up like your uncle.”
“Or a dumb . . .” I stopped myself. I hoped he wouldn’t find out. After all that, I didn’t want to mess it up by using the word he hated most. But you can’t fool my father.
He looked at me and smiled. “Skid?”
“I forgive you.”