Greg Braxton crossed the dorm room, approached the regeneration alcove, and rapped his knuckles against a metallic plate near the top of his Borg roommate’s skull.
“Hey, Wilcox. Wake up.”
Several warning lights flashed on the console as one dark eye opened. “Is there a reason for this interruption?”
“You can get your beauty sleep later. It’s Friday, 2100 hours, which means it’s party time. And not just any Friday, either. Ever heard of the annual freshman keg party? A proud if somewhat clandestine Starfleet Academy tradition.”
“I am not familiar with that activity.”
“You know, keg. As in beer. Suds. Brew. Cross-reference that, and then come on. The party’s already getting started.”
“An alcoholic beverage.” Wilcox didn’t move a millimeter. “Cadets and persons under the age of twenty-one are not permitted to . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, so what. You’re not in the Collective anymore, pal, and there won’t be any cops at the freakin’ party. Now, unless you want to miss this fascinating cultural event, you’d better get your armor-plated rear in gear.”
Wilcox stared at his annoying human roommate for a moment before replying, “These buttocks do not contain any gears or similar components.”
“I really don’t want to know what you’ve got up your ass. You coming or not?”
After a brief calculation of the variables involved, Wilcox stepped out of the alcove and followed Braxton toward the door. The value of compliance with official directives was counterbalanced by the importance of assimilating relevant information about his peer group. From what he had been able to ascertain so far, clandestine consumption of alcohol played a major part in the social life of many of his fellow cadets. He couldn’t quite comprehend why.
He was also left to ponder for quite some time over why Braxton walked past the public transit station and left the campus on foot. Walking was an inefficient means of transportation in general, and Wilcox had noticed that humans rarely walked far. After logical analysis, he eventually reached the conclusion that it was prudent for cadets attending an illegal party to avoid leaving a record of their whereabouts in the transit authority’s computers.
Given that a Borg on the streets of San Francisco was such a conspicuous sight, though, their whereabouts wouldn’t be difficult to discover. Although the city’s residents had become accustomed to alien visitors, Wilcox still noticed numerous stares from passers-by. One bearded fellow, smoking on the porch of a run-down older house, grinned as he saw Wilcox and shouted, “Halloween party, huh?”
Braxton quickly answered, “Yeah.”
Conversation, Wilcox thought, was certainly a more complicated procedure on Earth than it had been on the small, isolated colony where he had spent the past five years. And other matters were confusing, as well, such as why he had just seen a man smoking when, according to the historical references, that particular unhealthy pastime had ended more than two centuries ago.
As the cadets passed another block of houses in even worse repair, Wilcox decided to ask about it. “The relevant historical data indicates that the custom of smoking tobacco is no longer practiced on Earth . . .”
Rolling his eyes, Braxton replied, “Let me put it this way, friend, that wasn’t tobacco.”
For about the next kilometer, Wilcox mentally reviewed the contents of his cultural and historical databases regarding smokable Earth substances. Most of which, it seemed, were considerably more illegal than an underage keg party. Perhaps he had miscalculated the utility of his attendance at this event.
By then, however, the cadets had already reached their destination, which turned out to be a block of ancient and dilapidated houses marked with ‘Condemned’ signs. Three of the houses had already been demolished, and metal bins beside the street were heaped high with the debris. All of the remaining houses were vacant, their doors nailed shut and the windows boarded up.
Some light could be seen, however, coming from the open front door of the nearest house. Music was blasting from within the condemned structure at a volume that left Wilcox seriously considering the possibility that the vibrations alone might be enough to bring it down. But no, the decibel levels weren’t quite high enough, he concluded.
Three male cadets, who had been talking and laughing as they shared some sort of hand-rolled cigarette just inside the doorway, suddenly fell silent as they saw Wilcox approaching. The change in their demeanor didn’t seem to give pause to Braxton, who entered the house at his usual stride. Taking his cue from his roommate, Wilcox ignored the hostile glances directed toward him as he walked through the open door and followed Braxton toward a back room of the house.
“Just what the . . .”
The astonishing quantity of curses that followed this phrase made it plain that the speaker, one of the cadets who’d been standing beside the door, hadn’t lost any of his lung capacity as a result of whatever he’d been smoking.
“. . . is he doing here? Everyone knows that drones obey their orders like sheep. He’ll rat us out to the campus authorities the first chance he gets.”
“Keep your voice down. He’ll hear you.”
“I really don’t give a . . .”
The blaring music in the back room was almost loud enough to, but didn’t quite, drown out the next round of curses. Braxton, as he got a beer, seemed unconcerned. A tall blonde in skimpy clothing, who evidently wasn’t a cadet, smiled as she handed Wilcox a cup. “Hey, great costume.”
He deliberated over whether he ought to correct the blonde’s misperception and, as he took an experimental sip of his beer, decided that it wasn’t necessary to do so. She had already crossed the room to talk with another cadet, anyway.
The sour taste of the beer didn’t seem particularly appealing, and Wilcox was left wondering why the other cadets seemed to have such an affinity for the beverage. He knew that ingesting alcohol was supposed to have some pleasant physiological effects, but he hadn’t noticed any changes in his perceptions as a result of tasting the beer. Perhaps it was primarily a cultural ritual, he thought, as he took another small sip.
Laughter erupted from behind him. “That’s not how to drink beer, in wussy little sips like that. The way to do it is to chug-a-lug it. You know, drink it all at once.”
Wilcox turned around and watched as a grinning classmate raised a cup and proceeded to demonstrate the technique. Other cadets, standing nearby, applauded. Perhaps they weren’t altogether unfriendly, Wilcox concluded; after all, his classmates were taking the time to teach him their preferred method of consuming beer, which indicated that they had at least some interest in furthering his social development.
Accordingly, not wishing to give the impression that he was oblivious to their efforts on his behalf, Wilcox promptly drained the contents of his cup. Not too bad, he decided; there wasn’t quite as much of a lingering sour taste as he had first thought. His classmates were cheering in enthusiastic appreciation, and several of them brought more cups of beer, urging him to keep drinking.
To find himself the center of his classmates’ attention and, it seemed, their approval was an unexpected, welcome change from the stares and silence that he had often encountered since his arrival on Earth. Perhaps he had attained sufficient familiarity with the prevailing cultural rituals to bring about his acceptance into human society. Wilcox drank three more beers in quick succession, finding the taste more palatable with each one. Then, as he began to reach for a fifth beer, he experienced a sudden failure in the balance adjustment subroutines of his autonomic control processor. Error codes flashed across his consciousness in a rapid, dizzying pulsation as he crashed heavily to the floor.
The other cadets’ loud, jeering laughter now surrounded him. Although he tried to get to his feet, Wilcox met with no success in that effort, rising only to one knee before he slumped back down. The room had started to spin wildly around him, and he found himself unable even to comprehend the meaning of the lengthy list of error codes that continued to scroll across his confused brain.
“Looks like the galaxy’s would-be conquerors can’t even drink a few beers,” someone sneered, kicking Wilcox viciously in the ribs.
“Throw a bucket of water on him,” another cadet suggested.
“Water? Hell no. Piss on the son of a bitch. Let him assimilate some of our biological diversity.”
Raucous howls of glee greeted that suggestion, and the last sound Wilcox heard before he lost consciousness was a metallic chorus of several zippers being undone.
The harsh light of late morning eventually penetrated Wilcox’s awareness. He found that he was lying on a pile of wood scraps and other debris from the demolished houses, inside one of the trash bins. A reek of urine and vomit assailed his nostrils. Although his initial assumption was that the beer had caused him to vomit, a review of his internal sensor logs revealed that he had not in fact done so. Evidently, the foul substance was another unwanted gift from his classmates.
His bruised body and aching head protested as he sat up, but at least he no longer felt dizzy. Climbing out of the trash bin, Wilcox discovered, not surprisingly, that the abandoned house where the party had been held was once again empty. It had no running water with which to clean himself up, but he noticed that one of the run-down houses on the next block had a garden hose in the yard. Presumably the occupants, who didn’t seem to be at home, wouldn’t mind — or even know — if he borrowed the use of the hose for a few minutes.
Having restored his body to a reasonable approximation of its usual condition, Wilcox began the long walk back to campus. An extended regeneration cycle would be sufficient to repair the minor physical damage that he had sustained. As for the prospect of improving his relationship with his classmates, that, it was plain, would be a much more difficult endeavor.
He completed his regeneration cycle on Monday morning and stepped out of his alcove to find Greg Braxton on the other side of the room, putting on a scuffed pair of boots that appeared highly unlikely to pass the drill instructor’s inspection. Because conversation seemed pointless, Wilcox said nothing.
“Uh, Wilcox, about that party.” Braxton kept his head down, not meeting his roommate’s gaze as he spoke. “Before we got there, I didn’t know what they were going to do. Well, not all of it, anyway. A few guys told me that they thought it would be funny to see if they could get you drunk. That’s all.”
Whether or not Braxton was telling the truth didn’t appear to be an issue that merited any further discussion.
“That is irrelevant.”
Braxton opened his mouth as if to say something more. Then, evidently thinking better of it, he closed his mouth and returned his full attention to his boots, as Wilcox walked out the door.
Throughout his morning activities, Wilcox attempted to ignore the snickers and whispered comments that seemed to pervade every room he entered. The tale obviously hadn’t lost any details in the telling. By noon, when he entered the cafeteria and took his place in the replicator queue, there had been a noticeable increase in the quantity of the chatter.
He reached the front of the line and stepped forward to make his selections.
“How about a beer?” a voice behind him in the line suggested. Laughter broke out all over the room. Wilcox turned around to see Trent Scofield, one of the cadets who had tormented him at the party, grinning broadly.
“That is not an available option,” Wilcox replied, his tone neutral. He proceeded to order his lunch from the replicator.
“Just as well. Your ugly face looks even worse when you’re drunk, which is probably how you got mistaken for a sack of garbage.”
The food materialized, and Wilcox picked up his tray. “If I should happen to discover you in an inebriated condition at some future time, I’ll certainly dispose of you in an appropriate container.”
Muffled snorts and giggles could be heard from various parts of the room as Trent Scofield began to turn an interesting shade of purple.
A female Betazoid student, sitting at a nearby table, burst into an unrestrained guffaw. “Bwa ha ha! That was priceless! Did you see the look on Trent’s face? He’ll never dare to drink a beer again! Hey, c’mon over here and sit with me.” She waved a slender hand, beckoning Wilcox toward her.
Uncertain as to whether this might be a new attempt to make him look ridiculous in front of his classmates, Wilcox hesitated.
“You can sit here. I’m harmless. Well, mostly,” the Betazoid went on, quite cheerfully indeed. “My name’s Corayna Xelmi, but you can call me Corrie. Your first name is Daniel, isn’t it?”
No one had addressed him by his first name since his arrival on Earth. Until this moment, he hadn’t realized just how much that had contributed to his isolation. He took a step toward her and nodded.
“You know what,” Corrie continued, lowering her voice to a more intimate pitch, “I’ve been waiting for a chance to get to know you better.”