As an ethics professor at Starfleet Academy, Anita Cornerstone is almost exclusively concerned with applied ethics. By the time cadets get to her class, a required course for anyone doing command or medical or diplomatic tracks, they’ve already been through all the theory, learned all of the history and the terminology and the different philosophical systems, and done semesters of meta and normative ethics. When she’s done with them, the cadets in her classes go on to more specific courses on bioethics or military ethics or political and public service ethics, with smaller class sizes and a discussion-based structure. But first, they all have a semester with her.
She has, she thinks, among the most difficult of all the jobs of the Ethics Department faculty, second only to the poor saps stuck teaching Ethics 101 and Philosophy 101 to the incoming first-years. That's a task so unpleasant it would probably be classified as hazing if not for the fact that someone had to do it. She’d done her time in those jobs, as had all of the Ethics faculty, and she wouldn’t go back for anything.
But Anita’s current assignment, the one she’s had for more than the last decade, now, is no picnic either. She has to get entire year-levels of medical, command, and diplomatic track cadets through their first course in applied ethics, guide them over the huge gap between the theory they’ve been doing and the more practical work ahead of them, and she has to do it in lecture-hall format, to boot. That means no Socratic dialogs or class-wide open discussions. She can set them to small group discussion, and she does, sometimes, but the acoustics of the lecture hall makes that an unattractive option, and without her to guide the conversations, they lose a lot of their benefit anyway. It’s a challenge, and one she revels in.
She sets the same essay question for every incoming class of cadets she teaches, about a third of the way through the semester. The question - had you been on Tarsus IV during the famine, what would you have done differently - elicits roughly the same range of responses every year; the famine and following genocide on Tarsus have been discussed to death in the media and public schools since it happened, and no one ever comes up with any revolutionary new opinions on the subject. That makes grading the essays rather tedious, even more so than most essay assignments she sets. But revolutionary answers aren’t what she’s looking for, on this one. The real point of the assignment is to test how well each of the cadets have managed to start really thinking about the practical consequences of decisions, to move beyond gut instinct and moral outrage and theory and consider actual outcomes, and that’s information she needs to make sure they all get what they need out of her class before they move on to the next one. So she keeps assigning it, and resigns herself to the tedium of reading the essays.
She'd been looking forward to reading Cadet Kirk's essay; he’s an exceptionally creative thinker, and his essays are always interesting and well thought-out, much as his in-class behavior would predict otherwise. She’d been hoping to see something she hasn’t seen in the thousands of responses she’s read to this question over the years, for once.
He hadn’t disappointed on that front, she has to admit, though not in the way she’d hoped. Beneath the correctly formatted heading, his essay, if one could even call it that, consisted of only a single line: ‘There is nothing I could have done differently.’
That’s so far below the essay’s requirements as to be disrespectful, too much so to let slide with just a failing grade on the paper, and may be an indication of some problem that needs addressing, which is why he’s in her office now. He’s silent, waiting for her to speak. It’s unlike him – he’s usually no more content to let someone else have the first word than he is to let them have the last, rank protocol be damned – and a feeling of unease starts growing at the back of her mind.
“Your paper was one sentence long, Cadet Kirk. Would you care to explain that?” She keeps her tone stern and unyielding, but the truth is that she’s desperately curious to see how he’ll answer – so curious that she’d have called him in to explain himself even if discipline hadn’t required it.
Kirk’s unique brand of chaos is often frustrating, but it’s never boring, and attempts to correct his attitude or behavior, while usually a waste of time, are likewise. This is hardly the first time she’s had to call Cadet Kirk to her office to discuss his behavior, and she knows it will not be the last. This is just the latest in a pattern of uncooperative, obnoxious behavior that he’d established when he’d shown up ten minutes before the end of the first class.
Except...he’s never actually failed to complete an assignment before. He skips class a lot, and when he does show up, he tends to goof around or work on his PADD instead of listening or participating, but he turns his work in on time, and it’s always good, exemplary when he bothers to put some effort in. He’s aced every test she’s given him.
From what her colleagues say, this is typical for Kirk, and it’s useless trying to figure out how he pulls it off when, if even a quarter of the rumors are true, he spends a large chunk of his free time in bar fights and other cadets’ bedrooms. Reality itself seems to bend around Kirk, allowing him to defy the expectations of everyone in his path.
But this feels different than his normal challenges to authority, and not just because it’s taken a form it never has before. He isn’t grinning, or smirking, or wearing the ‘I’m so innocent, don’t look at me’ expression that never works because he can never hide the twinkle in his eyes. He isn’t slouched or splayed across her office chair like he thinks he’s in his dorm room, the way he always sits in class, when he bothers to show up. He's sitting stiffly, back straight and face utterly blank. There is no laughter twinkling in his eyes. She feels wary at the sight of him, this cadet who only superficially resembles the one she thought she knew.
“I spent a long time thinking about this,” Kirk says. His tone is more serious than she has ever heard it, and her unease grows at the sound of it. “I’ve played it out in my head every way I can think of. I was only twelve years old, and I couldn’t have done anything differently.”
Something about his phrasing bothers her, tells her that she’s missing something. But whatever is up with Kirk - or whatever Kirk is up to - is not the point of this discussion, her own curiosity notwithstanding, so she pushes the growing sense of foreboding to the back of her mind and says, “The question is hypothetical, Cadet.” She makes it clear in her own tone of voice that she does not believe for a second he didn’t already know that. Whatever else Kirk is, he’s not stupid.
Kirk shakes his head and swallows so hard she can see his throat move, then says quietly, “not for me.”
It takes her a moment to connect his words to her own, to comprehend what he is telling her. It is unthinkable.
"It isn't in your records," she says after a long silence. She doesn't actually know that for sure - like most professors who teach large lecture classes, she doesn't actually read every student's records - but she knows the Academy. If Kirk's records said he'd been on Tarsus, every professor on campus would have heard about it by now, and probably most of the cadets as well.
Kirk shakes his head. "It's for my protection," he explains. His tone is rueful now, his mouth turned up in a wry smirk that is bitter and entirely without humor. "I saw his face."
She stares at him, unable to stop herself, as the images from the news reports flash across her mind’s eye, clear as if she’d just seen them yesterday: the black body bags stacked up like bricks, too many to count, the crowds of skinny, terrified survivors being herded onto the rescue ship, the desolate fields where the crops should have been. And the children, nine of them, separate from the rest of the survivors, faces blurred out and bodies nearly skeletal, huddled in the cave where they’d been found. The only people on the self-proclaimed Governor Kodos’s infamous death list to survive the genocide. The only people in the universe who could identify him, should the presumption of his death prove false. None of the recovered bodies had ever been identified as his.
She remembers what the news reports, and the reports compiled from the hearings and investigations, had said about those nine children, about how they’d escaped the initial slaughter, about the things they’d had to do, the choices they’d had to make, to survive during the months after it until the rescue ship arrived, and knows without a doubt that Cadet Kirk -Cadet James T. Kirk, and now that she knows he was one of the nine, this last piece falls into place automatically, of course that’s who he is, it’s all so obvious now - already knows all about considering outcomes and the practical consequences of his decisions. He’d learned that lesson the hard way, long ago. Those months leading his little ragtag band of child survivors barely younger than himself would have taught him more than she could in a decade of one-on-one tutoring. Bile rises in her throat at the thought of him, twelve years old and learning those lessons, and she ruthlessly swallows it down. Though there is very little she can teach him that his more practical education wouldn’t have when he was far too young to be learning it - and no wonder he never seemed to take her class seriously, it must all seem so silly to him, so childish - she can’t waive the requirement without causing the kind of fuss he clearly doesn’t want. That could even, theoretically, put him in danger, though the chances of that were astronomically low. But she can do a little, to make things easier for him. She’d already had something of a soft spot for him - he may be obnoxious, most of the time, but he’s also the best entertainment the Academy’s had in years - and with the life he’s led - that he was both the famous Kelvin baby and JT of the Tarsus nine seemed too much tragedy for one young man, even one who seemed to warp reality the way Kirk did - he more than deserves that much.
“Given the circumstances,” she says carefully, once she has sufficiently recovered from her shock to say anything at all, “I’ll be accepting your essay as it is for full marks.” She has so many questions, but to ask them would be inappropriate, and more than that, it would be cruel. She schools her expression into one of blank professionalism. That, she thinks, will be easier on him than pity, or compassion, or curiosity.
Kirk nods. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” His face is back to the expressionless mask it had been when he’d stepped into her office, but there's relief in his eyes, and she knows that she’s taken the correct approach.
She tells him he’s excused from this week’s class, which will be dedicated to discussing the essays – not that he’s ever needed her permission before, to skip class, but she doesn’t mention that, and neither does he – and then dismisses him. He doesn’t flee her office, but the way he walks out, in measured steps at an even pace, is enough to tell her it’s only because he’s forcing himself not to. He closes the door behind him without having to be told.
Once he’s gone, Anita buries her face in her hands, twining her fingers through her hair to keep from punching the wall of her office, and spares a nostalgic thought for the boredom and tedium of yesterday. Suddenly, a semester or two teaching Ethics or Philosophy 101 doesn’t sound so bad, after all.