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The Newest Ensign

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The ship’s counselor had recommended that Data make time to occasionally participate in leisure activities, and though Data disagreed with the assumption that he could benefit from leisure time, he had decided to obey the recommendation and attempt to spend an evening in the ship’s recreational center: Six-Forward.

A blur flew at Data’s head, and his hand came up automatically to intercept it an inch before it impacted his face. Curious. A few calculations, and he traced its path back to where four ensigns were clustered around the bar, chuckling and watching Data’s expressions. Their grins grew wider as Data stood and approached them, holding out the bottle of ale that had been inexplicably launched at his position. “I believe this is yours, sir,” he said as Ensign Golding accepted it with a raised eyebrow.

“So considerate,” said Golding, causing another slight ripple of laughter among his companions.

Data paused, attempting to assess the situation, to no avail. “May I ask why you did that?” he asked, tilting his head to the side.

Golding’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “Did what?”

“You launched that bottle at me. Why?” Around them, more people were taking notice of the conversation, ceasing talk to watch the five of them.

“It didn’t hurt you, did it?” There was something in his tone that struck Data as insincere, but he couldn’t quite place it, nor decipher Golding’s intentions. Perhaps it was the way Golding shifted in place, straightening to emphasize his taller stature; or perhaps it was the way his friends moved around, half-encircling Data.

Data twitched in confusion. “Hurt? No, sir. I am incapable of hurt. I am an android. However, you did not answer my inquiry.”

The ensign to Golding’s left, Ensign Lee, gave a harsh laugh. “Oh, we know what you are, android.”

The other ensigns were closer now, closer than they needed to be to hold a regular conversation. But, surely they held no ill intentions? This was a Federation starship, and these were Starfleet graduates. They were more mature than the students Data had encountered at the Academy.

Data hesitated, running a glance around the room. The previous clinking of glasses and murmur of conversation had slowed, and guarded gazes had settled on him that jerked down the moment he made eye contact with any of them. He couldn’t help but suspect he had done something wrong—but what? “I…do not understand,” he finally answered, even as Golding took a step so close that Data had to tilt his head up to maintain eye contact. At this proximity, Data could pick up on molecules of alcohol proceeding from the ensign’s mouth. Intoxication, then. But how could that be? Crewmembers were only permitted synthehol while on active duty. Golding’s words came out in a hiss, despite his unwavering grin. “You shouldn’t be here, y’know. You don’t deserve it.”

“I was not aware there were qualifications for occupying Six-Forward,” responded Data truthfully.

This elicited a snarl to flicker across Golding’s face. “Oh, I’m not talking about Six-Forward. I’m talking about the ship you’re standing on. I’m talking about you playing dress-up.”

Data dipped a glance down to survey his own clothing, but he was simply wearing his yellow uniform, as always. He still did not see the point that Ensign Golding was attempting to make, but perhaps it would be best if he did not pursue this line of questioning, as the four ensigns were apparently quite intoxicated and prone to acting irrationally. “I believe I have business to attend to,” said Data quietly, swiveling around.

He’d only taken one step toward the doors when he felt a hand grip a fistful of fabric at the back of his collar, and another hand grasp his wrist.

It appeared he had been wrong. Perhaps starships were not so unlike the Academy after all.

“Please remove your hands from my person,” Data said quietly, striving to eliminate anything that could be interpreted as adversarial from his body language and voice. With that intent, he did not resist as the hands wrenched him around to face Golding and Lee once more, the other two stationing themselves behind him like sentinels. Notably, they did not release their grips, ignoring his request.

Any semblance of a smile had fled Golding’s face, leaving only bitterness and perhaps hatred in its place. “Your person?” spat Golding. “Are you so delusional to think that word could possibly apply to you? Do you have a clue how many years it takes most of us to get into Starfleet?”

“Five,” said Data immediately, his information retrieval reflexes kicking in before he had a chance to contemplate the wisdom of speaking at this juncture.

“Right! But you, you never had to struggle like that, did you? Everything comes easy, doesn’t it? Memorization, calculation…reflexes.”

Without warning, Golding’s arm flashed, sweeping toward Data’s face with the bottle in hand. Data’s wrist that wasn’t currently being gripped by one of the ensigns from behind darted up to stop it. A beat of silence passed as Golding stared down at Data, the bottle caught between their two holds.

Golding gave a soft laugh. “Uncanny.”

“I am going now,” said Data, releasing the bottle and risking a small tug of his left wrist to see if the ensign would release it. He did not. 

Either Data could forcibly remove himself, perhaps inciting an altercation, or he could remain in place and allow them to continue…whatever this was.

He made his decision quickly. Data did not want to risk losing his position on the USS Trieste, and disappoint Captain Walsh by reacting rashly to what was probably typical human behavior.

“Where’s that android super-strength? Not even gonna fight back, are ya?” The grip that the ensign behind him, Ensign Netal, had on his wrist turned tight, to the degree that if he were human, it would likely have left a bruise. As it was, he felt nothing at all.

“I am not programmed for violence,” explained Data.

“Programmed…” Lee shook his head, something like giddy disbelief crossing his face. “I can’t believe Starfleet is doing this to us. We’ll be answering ‘Yes, sir’ to the ship computer before you know it.”

Ah. Data could now see at least one source of their confusion. “On the contrary, sir, the ship’s computers are not sentient. I, however—“

“Don’t you ever shut up?” barked Ensign Golding, and Data’s jaw snapped closed. It was not the first time he had heard that complaint addressed to him in the past.

“Say, Data, speaking of ships’ computers…” Ensign Yvette, flanking Data on the other side, having remained silent up to that point in the conversation, sidled around to smile at him with a glass of water in her hand. “What happens when they get spilled on?”

Data made a blink of surprise. “They are damaged and malfunction, requiring minor repairs. I fail to see how that is relevant—“

She poured the contents of the glass on his head, giggling at the frozen expression on his face as water ran down hair, eyes, and mouth, turning the yellow of his uniform dark as it soaked into the fabric. The other three burst into laughter, along with many other occupants of the room. For a few seconds, Data was too surprised to do anything but stare, openmouthed, as he fought to puzzle out the meaning of that action.

Vaguely, he heard the doors to Six-Forward sweep open, and some part of him noticed the way the room instantly hushed as two new sets of footfalls entered the room, hesitating and then growing faster as they approached his position. When the expressions of the ensigns around him fell, however, turning pale and almost frightened, he managed to take advantage of the moment to free himself from their suddenly weaker grips and take a step backwards and break away from their circle, stumbling slightly.

“C-Captain,” stammered Lee, and as Data turned, he indeed watched as Captain Walsh stomped directly toward the four ensigns at the bar, bearing down with all the gravity of an asteroid. His dark brows were pinched together and his mouth set in a dark, barely contained line. First Officer T'Lith hurried behind him, emotionless in every way except for the subtle clenching of her fists. Curious.

Captain Walsh didn’t spare Data a glance as he reached the ensigns. He stabbed a finger into Golding’s chest. “Just what do you think you are doing, Ensign?” he growled softly, but the sound of it made everyone in the room visibly stiffen. Everyone except Commander T'Lith and Data.

“Nothing, sir,” muttered Golding, his glance flickering for an instant toward where Data stayed still against the wall, out of reach. If the captain noticed the glance, he didn’t mention it, choosing instead to whirl on the rest of the room with eyes that faintly burned. 

His voice raised to a decibel just under a shout. “Commander T'Lith, file a report. These four are to be confined to their quarters until our next arrival at a starbase. They are indefinitely relieved of duty until further notice.”

“Understood, captain,” replied Commander T'Lith smoothly.

“As for the rest of you,” he said, and there was a collective flinch. “I will not file an official report nor take official action, but let me make one thing exquisitely clear. There will be absolutely no harassment on my ship. I don’t care who it is or what it’s for. I don’t tolerate bullies. Not now, not ever, and certainly not here.” He looked now at Data, brown eyes blazing, and his expression turned to something like disgust. Data’s bewilderment sunk into helpless perplexity. It appeared he’d angered the captain as well. “I expected better from you,” Captain Walsh continued, stepping around further into the room, glaring at the bar’s occupants. “You’re Starfleet, for crying out loud. The best we have to offer! Where is your dignity? Your compassion?”

He let his words linger in the stricken air for a few long seconds. Finally, apparently satisfied with his efforts, he spun on his heel and stalked out of the room. Just before exiting, he tossed a hand in Data’s direction. “Ensign Data, please come with me.”

Data obeyed, resolutely resisting the impulse to observe others’ reactions to the order as he left. He suspected the four ensigns who had confronted him were less than happy with the turn of events, and he could not argue with them. Somehow, he had prompted their admittedly aggressive behavior, but he still did not know what he had done wrong.

It did not matter very much, now. What reason could the captain have for requesting a private audience if not to administer some kind of punishment? In anticipation, Data began preparing a mental list of steps to take in the event of his dismissal from the crew.

As he fell into step beside Captain Walsh and Commander T'Lith, he cocked his head in surprise as the Vulcan first officer held out a napkin to him, presumably taken from Six-Forward. “Thank you,” he said quietly, accepting it and methodically wiping it across his face to dry it.

The water hadn’t harmed him, of course. The polymer construction of Data’s skin prevented any unwanted liquids from reaching his inner circuitry. Still, something about the action itself of pouring the water on his head, solely with the intent to unsettle him was…well, unsettling.

If only he understood what he had done wrong, he could correct his behavior and prevent such future happenings.

They reached a turbolift in silence, and Data folded the now damp napkin into a neat square, tucking it into his sleeve for future disposal. The lift had only gone up half a deck when Walsh grunted, “Halt,” and the turbolift beeped and stopped in response.

Data watched the captain with interest as he ran his fingers through his thick, dark hair and exhaled heavily. “I guess I should have predicted this kind of thing, huh,” muttered Captain Walsh. T'Lith remained impassive.

Data wasn’t sure precisely what ‘kind of thing’ the captain was referring to, but ventured a guess. “I am sorry for the incident in Six-Forward, Captain,” he said. 

The way the captain jerked up to glare at Data suggested that his attempt to mitigate the captain’s frustration with an apology had failed, and perhaps given the captain cause for more anger. “Sorry? What for?” growled Walsh.

Data hesitated, not wanting to pick the wrong words, as he seemed quite prone to doing as of late. “It appears I unintentionally provoked other crewmembers.”

Captain Walsh considered this, leaning back against the side of the turbolift. “So you think you’re to blame for what happened?”

At this, Data’s mouth opened, his head twitching to look between the two as though searching for an answer. Was this what humans called a ‘trick question’? A test of some sort? “Am I not, sir?“

“What makes you think that?” asked Commander T'Lith. Her fingertips had steepled in a thoughtful expression. Humans were fascinating, but Data often found Vulcans easier to predict and comprehend, which he appreciated.

“In the past, I have been at the center of multiple such altercations. My presence seems to cause…unease, despite my efforts to the contrary. If I had not gone to Six-Forward and interacted with the others at this time, the entire event could have been avoided.”

“Ensign,” started Captain Walsh, his face softening. “What happened—how did it start?”

Data processed. “Ensign Golding threw a bottle of ale at my head.”

T'Lith's eyes narrowed faintly, and Walsh raised his eyebrows. “And what, pray tell, did you do to provoke that?”

“I was present, sir.”

At this, Captain Walsh shook his head, but now Data was wondering if perhaps it wasn’t him the captain was angry with at all. “Data, if my crew is going to lash out at any being they perceive as being different, then they don’t deserve the uniform.”

Data nodded, waiting for the captain to order the lift to move again. But the man didn’t move, seemingly content to allow Data to comment as he wished on the matter. And Data did have a question. “Captain…” he began, his head jerking to the side as he pondered how to phrase the question. “One of them suggested that perhaps I do not deserve to wear the uniform, either. Is that true?”

Walsh sighed. “Because of your superior abilities?”

Data nodded.

Walsh pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Data…when I picked you to serve on this ship, it wasn’t because you can bend duranium with your bare hands—or because of your billions of calculations per second.”

“Trillions,” corrected Data.

A smile touched the captain’s lips. “Right, my mistake. No, ensign, I picked you because your record demonstrates a pattern of determination, resourcefulness, and above all, compassion. Nearly all your professors spoke of you not as a technical prodigy, but rather, as a fine example of many of humanity's virtues.”

“But captain,” said Data, finding it necessary to remind him of the fact, “I am not human. Those traits are nothing more than programming.”

A beat. “Well, don’t you think you might become more?” asked Captain Walsh, pushing off the wall and sweeping his hands in a wide gesture. 

Data’s brows lifted slightly. “I…don’t know,” he answered honestly. “I am only an android."

The captain folded his arms. “Frankly, ensign, so far, you’re the only android in existence. The first of your kind. You’re unique, probably more than even you yourself realize. Who’s to say what you’re capable of becoming? Them?” He jabbed a finger at the door, probably indicating the ensigns who had accosted him earlier. “Or will you decide what, and more importantly, who you really are?”

Data had no response to that. He had met many kind people who treated him as though he were a human, with all the rights and nuances as any other person, but never before had someone proposed that he was capable of directing his own development. His…destiny, if it could be called that.

It was an interesting thought.

“Data, I need you to promise me something,” continued Walsh, when it became apparent that Data was not going to speak. His voice sounded tired, somehow, although he had not apparently physically exerted himself in the short interval that they had been conversing in the turbolift.

“Yes, sir?”

“Don’t you ever stop trying, you hear me? There will always, and I repeat, always be someone ready to tear you down from the inside out. You can’t let them, kid. You just can’t let them.”

T'Lith nodded in agreement. Data wondered what opposition she might have faced on her path to first officer aboard the USS Trieste. While Vulcans were held in high esteem by much of the Federation, there were still very few who had as yet become Starfleet officers.

Data wasn’t sure exactly how to follow the captain’s instructions. But he would try.

“Yes, sir,” he said, and Walsh smiled and stepped back.

“Resume.”

The captain and first officer nodded their permission for him to leave the turbolift once it reached the deck with his living quarters. As he walked down the corridors, he passed some crewmembers who shot puzzled glances at his still-wet hair. Rather than avert his gaze, as he had become used to doing since arriving on the ship, he met them head-on, with a simple, polite nod. To his surprise, some crewmembers smiled back at him and continued on their way.

Perhaps he could adjust to life as an ensign after all.