Letting Down the Race

The corridor lighting on the Enterprise always seems just a bit too bright, casting awkward shadows over a deck that ripples with tiny sparkling imperfections. Reg Barclay understands that his perceptions are more sensitive than those of most humans, and the high level of sensory input doesn’t usually bother him; he’s grown accustomed to these surroundings, adapted to his environment to the point that he barely notices.

Except when he’s feeling stressed. Like today. Then it’s as if he’s being assailed by a jumble of bright lights and loud noises and peculiar grating textures, and he has to remind himself to take deep regular breaths, while most of his energy goes into maintaining his mental focus. He can do it; after all, this is nothing new. The cacophony recedes a bit, and Reg, feeling somewhat encouraged by that small success, makes his way along the corridor with a confident stride. Or at least that’s what he thinks he’s doing, but he has learned from bitter experience that it’s generally unwise to make assumptions about how others see him.

He pauses outside Counselor Troi’s office door and ascertains that there is no one else in the corridor before he touches the chime. Now he feels doubly embarrassed about behaving so furtively. There’s nothing shameful about counseling, he knows, and it’s not as if he could have kept his obsession with the holodeck a secret, anyway. No doubt everyone on the ship has heard by now that Reg Barclay is a hol-addict.

“Come,” Troi says, in that lovely melodious voice that he finds so compelling. As he enters the room, Reg deliberately shifts his thoughts to the clean, stark, comforting lines of computer code that he was working on earlier. Programming has no ambiguities, none of the difficulties associated with trying to grasp the subtle vagaries of human emotion and social interaction — or alien emotion, for that matter; he has days when he can’t tell the difference. He’d much rather Troi think him emotionless, an obsessive engineer totally fixated on computers, than have her become aware of his pathetic and futile schoolboy crush on her.

He realizes that she probably already knows, and he is only kidding himself when he imagines otherwise.

“How are you doing today, Reg?” She smiles. It’s an expression he always feels awkward trying to mimic; he’s seen himself on vids before, his every twitch and tic thoroughly dissected for his edification at those social skills workshops he’d had to attend as a boy. Supposedly his interpersonal functioning has been much improved as a result, but he still feels convinced that others routinely define him by his differences.

“I, uh, I’m just fine, Counselor. I’ve been keeping busy in my free time by doing some reading on Earth history — the American civil rights movement of the twentieth century.”

Then he proceeds to chatter on for a while about sit-ins and protest marches, a much safer topic of conversation than his own internal landscape. He doesn’t care to admit just how closely he can identify with the victims of segregation. Many years have passed, he knows, since people like himself — autistic people — were labeled as psychologically disordered and genetically defective. Now, in these more enlightened times, even small children in the Federation are taught about neurodiversity, all forms of bullying are strictly forbidden, and Earth’s schools offer inclusive programs for the one to two percent of the population that inhabits the autistic spectrum. Employment opportunities are equally available to all, and social services are provided without cost, as needed.

And Reg still feels like a freak, even so.

He realizes that he has started to rock back and forth in his seat. Almost by reflex, he forces himself to stop doing it. By now it’s quite thoroughly ingrained in him that most people don’t rock, they don’t flap their arms when they’re excited, in fact, they don’t do any of a long list of behaviors that he would have experienced as normal if he hadn’t been taught otherwise.

“In the late twentieth century, soon after the workplace was desegregated, black employees felt a great deal of pressure to excel in their jobs. If they were less than competent in any task, they saw their failure as reinforcing the pervasive stereotype of their inferiority, as ‘letting down the race.'”

He believes his tone is pedantic enough so that it’s not immediately obvious he’s talking about his own sorry, hol-addicted self, but he gives himself a mental kick anyway for coming so close to revealing the extent of his vulnerability. Although Reg consciously knows it’s not rational to worry that his crewmates see him as a dismal example of all the shortcomings of autistic people, he just can’t manage to get the thought out of his mind.

So he changes the subject and tells Counselor Troi all about how well he’s been doing with the activities she suggested to him for reducing stress. Exercise, meditation, the occasional leisurely stroll through the ship’s arboretum, that routine is nothing new to Reg, but he pretends to be grateful anyway. Of course, he doesn’t really imagine that he’s fooling the counselor — even if she weren’t an empath, he’s never had much ability to hide his emotional state.

Although he expects Troi to interrupt him and to redirect the conversation, she doesn’t. She lets him talk, and after a while he glances up at the wall chronometer to find, to his relief, that the session is over. He stands up to leave.

The counselor rises from her chair and walks toward the door with him. She’s wearing a long blue dress today, soft fluid swirls of movement that eddy around him like an ocean in which he could easily go under. He thinks of the mythological Sirens, who lured unwary sailors to their deaths. Once more he tries to distract himself by visualizing neat lines of computer code scrolling across a screen, but he discovers that his mind has suddenly gone blank. He suspects it would have been a pointless effort in any event.

Just before they reach the door, Troi stops.

“Reg,” she tells him firmly, “you’re a very fine officer, and you’re making a valuable contribution to the Enterprise’s mission. There’s not one person aboard this ship who thinks you don’t belong here.”

For now, he really tries to believe her, and as he steps into the corridor with its bright lights and unsettling shadows, he can almost convince himself that he has succeeded. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t believe her, after all. He knows that addiction is not a weakness of character, autism is not a mark of inferiority, and plenty of people get counseling for one reason or another.

Then the door closes behind him, and as he glances up and down the empty corridor, he feels relieved, once again, that there’s no one around to see him.