And yet it is the most precious thing we have.
– Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
Part One – Leave Nothing to Chance
When Pavel Andreivich Chekov was four years old and in nursery class, he drew in clumsy crayon, an awkward, quartered box before proceeding to inform his classmates of all the possible outcomes of a race held between a rabbit and a tortoise. He cried when his teacher told him the fable was less about the race and more about the moral lesson at the end and that one day, he would also learn to understand it, in his own way.
“You will just have to work harder to catch up, Pasha,” she said, though not unkindly. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
A week later, his classmates cried when he told them that it made no sense for anyone to say Goodbye to the moon, because the moon was always there, hidden from sight by the brightness of the sun. A week after, during story time, he rebelled again and refused to believe that a rabbit made of velvet could transfigure into one made of flesh and blood.
Why, Pavel questioned, before his teacher finally made him sit in a corner, were all the books for children filled with rabbits? Weren’t there any that told of how the world was made? When his teacher attempted to tell him the story of Creation, Pavel descended into an impressive sulk and refused to hear any more of it.
Finally, the school called his mother and she came, looking worn out from work and with a worried expression on her face. She spoke quietly to the principal while Pavel sat on a bench outside the door and picked at the Band-Aid on his knee, placed there by the school nurse when Vaclav, who was big for his age and a bully, pushed him down in the playground.
“I know it is hard, Mrs. Chekov, because Pavel is much younger than most of the children in his class and already far more intelligent. I personally do not believe that this is the right place for him…yes, yes, I know he is misunderstood and this is the only school in the district willing to take him at his young age..,” The conversation continued but Pavel shut his eyes and blocked it out.
Pavel understood, even at a young age, that his family was poor and his parents survived on good common sense and hard work. His father was a low level mechanical engineer at the large industrial facility and his mother worked in the town’s general store. There were few children his age who lived nearby but Piotr and Anastasia put up with him once in a while, when pressed by their mothers; otherwise, they were deeply involved with friends their own age. Two years between them and Pavel was long enough and they had neither the time nor the patience to allow a toddler to tag along often, especially one who could do arithmetic.
What Pavel didn’t understand was how he knew the number of tiles on the kitchen floor by multiplying the length of it by its width and why his mother slapped his palms and scolded him for marking each one with chalk. He wanted to count them, he told his mother, rubbing his eyes with his clumsy, baby fists. Pavel stared at the jar of beans on the counter and saw each one clearly, like a star and ran his finger over the surface of it before he pushed it off the counter and watched it shatter, beans spilling onto the floor like constellations.
His father spanked him over his knee for that incident and had him apologize to his mother before picking every single bean from the floor. Pavel counted each one under his breath and the final tally was so close to the number that floated in his head and the feeling of triumph so intense that it sparked a fever and he had to be tucked into bed early.
Pavel’s parents weren’t idiots and had already slowly begun to realize that their son is special. His father opened up the study to him and offered Pavel dozens of old engineering books and the row of encyclopedias that lined one shelf. A computer sat on the desk, along with a large metal cabinet, squat and locked, as if measuring up the boy before revealing its secrets. The wealth of knowledge was so attractive and overwhelming that Pavel could do no more than point at random and accept the book his father pulled from the shelf to set on the floor, so the boy could flip through it with ease.
It was the volume for the letter G, from a universal Earth history encyclopedia. It would probably have been considered outdated and obsolete, in this age of data crystals and telemetry. But it was what Pavel had right now, still a bit too young to be aware of how far the world had advanced in the 23rd century. Still, it was in good shape for its edition.
Pavel opened it up to an entry labeled Gagarin, Yuri and instantly, fell in love with space.
Pavel learned that when it came to space exploration, Russia was no slouch. He read about the Arms Race and Sputnik and the lives of cosmonauts before graduating to the next century of space exploration and history. He tore through all his father’s engineering books, learned math and more science and used his free time at school to scan through the infinite archives of the internet.
Pavel absorbed everything he could on space and physics. He recognized game theory and used it to his advantage, to gain an edge in terrible schoolyard games that he wouldn’t otherwise have because of his size. He kept a lookout for transport shuttles that zoomed over his village before disappearing into orbit. All the while, at eight years old and in the third grade, Pavel had never wanted something so badly than to be aboard one of them.
It was unfortunate that his teachers couldn’t afford to show him favoritism but Pavel didn’t want any of it anyway. He didn’t much like the pitying looks they sent his way or the grim, patronizing smiles they plastered on their faces when they realized how bored he was in their classes. One high school math teacher acted on it, at least, and sat with him in the library and brought him geometry and calculus and on one confusing afternoon, Anton Chekov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” to act out when the weather was good. What this had to with math, he didn’t know.
This teacher waited patiently for Pavel to sharpen his pencils and old-fashioned as it was, made Pavel write out all the solutions to the problems, no matter how many pads of paper they had to get through to do it.
“It is important, Pavel,” the teacher told him. “That in this day and age of machines that make our work faster and more efficient, that we understand the means that brings us the end. To honor those who came centuries before us who have allowed us to make such progress.”
Pavel listened and nodded and worked, rubbing out his mistakes until the paper had holes but nevertheless, he learned the short cuts but not to make them and was rewarded by proud smiles and occasional candy. Despite the fact that his hands were still baby soft and he hadn’t learned how to be vocally succinct, he was beginning grasp in practice what he had only once known before as his personal peculiarities.
Then, one day, Pavel handed in his paper and watched as his teacher’s hands shook around it, shooting him a look raw with wonder and alarm. He took Pavel’s hand and frogmarched him to the principal’s office.
While Pavel sat outside it and studied his shoelaces, he thought of Moufang loops and whether or not his mother would have a plate of blinchiki waiting for him when he came home from school. Hardly ten minutes had gone by when the teacher-- Mr. Kuznetzov-- staggered out with a sheaf of paper and told Pavel that come Monday, he was going to be moved from the third grade to the eighth grade.
Pavel brightened at the thought of being classmates with Piotr and Anastasia and they could walk home together and he would invite them inside for a snack. But when he got home and ran to tell them the news, Piotr and Anastasia began to ignore him and Pavel didn’t know why.
The bullying started when Pavel was twelve, having grown taller and lankier and therefore, worth the attention. It felt to Pavel that puberty had hit him with all the impact of the fall of the Berlin wall and his muscles ached all the time with growing pains, coupled with the disappointment of being denied a growth spurt. Pavel felt like a spider, most days, spindly and uncoordinated. He didn’t understand girls or any thing, really, other than math or science. He didn’t get the appeal of cigarettes and American clothes or whatever it was teenagers were supposed to do. His one solace was he was a certified genius at the age of twelve and had gained a little attention through academic competition; particularly in the fact that he often wiped the floor with his much older opponents.
By now, Pavel had acquired his own computer with his winnings and had given the rest of it to his parents, stubbornly pushing the credit card into his mother’s hands even while they protested. He tossed the medals into his desk drawer and promptly forgot about them, retreated into more maths, somehow convinced that the numbers were like a path towards something better. He read as much as he could to learn things about space, watched live satellite feeds of exploration vessels over the surfaces of new planets and documentation from Earth colonies in other galaxies.
It was fascinating and frustrating at the same time because Pavel lived in a small village with parents who were contented with their lives and seemingly had no other ambitions other than to live a normal, simple life.
All the while, Pavel was learning how to socialize, especially how to curb his mouth when people lost interest or their eyes glazed over from lack of understanding. Most of the time he kept to himself and over time the bullying faded, going from shoving and pushing to a well-placed taunt now and again. Piotr, the childhood neighbor, often hung with his tormentors, neither taking part nor doing anything to stop it. Whether or not it was because they had played together as children, Pavel would never know. Nevertheless, Piotr was popular, tall, handsome, unreachable, and eighteen—everything Pavel wanted to be, as if that was the solution to his growing hunger.
Pavel lay in bed every night and recited prime numbers until he fell asleep. Every day that passed was another day closer to a high school certificate but every day he was more afraid of the vast, looming uncertainty beyond that.
On Stardate 2353, the United Federation of Planets declassified and released a series of documentation for the purpose of transparency. It was an effort to spread awareness, a clarification of the Prime Directive to help the general public understand their efforts. It was also a publicity stunt and it worked. The shiny poster covered with insignia and stern looking cadets made Pavel's mouth water. For the first time in a long time, it made Pavel act without first thinking.
Pavel downloaded the application from the central server in the library and took it home in a data key. His heart beat hard in his chest as he paged through it, skimming through standard bio-data requirements and beyond, to pages which featured difficult math equations, seemingly chosen at random. They were difficult, though not impossible, and the solutions had already begun to creep into his mind.
His first thought was that his parents wouldn't approve. To them, space was...space, black and empty and unknown. It meant stars and discovery and the thrill of exploration but Pavel was concerned that it would bring his parents grief. He loved them despite the fact that he was often uncomfortable with concepts that he could not really quantify but still he knew what hugs and kisses felt like and recognized something when his parents beamed at him with pride. He had also never gone without food or shelter and he knew his parents tried hard to fill the void that threatened to take over his mind, the black hole growing in the pit of his stomach.
But Pavel wanted Starfleet. It offered him opportunity, a chance to see things if only he could convince them to take him. Overcome with a lapse of confidence, Pavel abandoned the recruitment form for a week until he couldn’t stand it anymore and filled it out, putting a fake birthdate and age. Pavel threw himself into the math, watched as it spun from his fingers with single-minded clarity onto the surface of the tablet, as his scratchy handwriting correcting into precise fonts. He worked almost feverishly until the light started to fill his room and he skipped class to hide in one of the darker corners of the library and wrote the most personal essay of his life. It was mostly without words-- Pavel didn’t have much of that by way of practice-- but he knew he was there in the numbers. He scribbled down ideas he had about the trajectory of teleportation beams and trilithium refinement. Then there was all the math that Pavel knew would allow humans to snake through the galaxy with ease and certainty, so no one would ever be lost in the hugeness of space again.
Then, in a surge of determination, Pavel hit send and it was done. Pavel stared at the screen for a while before it dawned on him what had happened. He dropped the tablet onto the floor, curled up in the corner with his head in his hands and quietly panicked.
The whole weekend was spent in bed, staring at the ceiling and breathing.
The summer moved slowly.
For nearly a week, Pavel read or stared out the window, the ennui coating him like a thick layer of icing until his father decided it would be better to keep him busy and brought him to work. Pavel smiled more after that, even if his mother fussed about him coming back greasy and sweaty. He had never considered following the footsteps of his father and it was tough, physical work but there was a feeling of satisfaction that he liked. Pavel liked feeling useful.
Nevertheless, the work was difficult and many of the mechanics teased him for being small. Pavel wasn’t of the same muscular build as his father. He looked more like his mother, finely lined and big-eyed, with dark, reddish-brown curly hair.
I’m a rabbit, Pavel thought, as he stared at himself in the mirror, a velveteen rabbit who no one wants to play with. Pavel was thirteen, taller, but now covered in freckles he detested. Sometimes, the village aunts suggested remedies, old-fashioned ones, like rubbing lemon juice to help them fade. Pavel politely shot them down; they meant well but their ideas were wives’ tales and scientifically unsound.
Pavel felt like he was floating in a bubble of discontent and disillusionment. His school counselors sometimes stopped by his house, talking to him about university and requesting testing and financial aid but Pavel had a thousand excuses for them: knew he didn’t qualify, wasn’t poor enough, too brilliant to be handled alone by mentors, too young to live alone without his parents, lived too far from the universities and couldn’t ask his parents to leave the life they built together in their peaceful town.
The guilt for all of it was heavy for many reasons and enough to stay silent and not defend his intelligence. There was time and that was his greatest advantage, the only real advantage he had, that he could afford. He was barely a teenager and even if Starfleet called in two years or three, he wouldn’t even be of recruiting age and the truth was Pavel only wanted Starfleet and Starfleet alone.
It was still hard not to feel trapped.
It was a Friday, a particularly rewarding one, when Pavel and his father came from work to find a man seated at the table with his mother. His face was creased with something like experience and his hair was touched with a little grey. He wasn’t tall but he was solidly built and Pavel’s eyes widened when he recognized the uniform of a captain, a Starfleet captain.
It had been a good day, one where Pavel had felt particularly useful, sitting around with the engineers and correcting their math. He had felt like he belonged, even though they ruffled his hair and teased him and had not let him touch heavy machinery; it was still a rare enough feeling that Pavel had allowed himself to enjoy it. When they didn’t need him, they let him sort through the factory archives and read until his eyes grew tired. But the good mood he had been carrying until that moment left him when he saw the officer in the kitchen.
His first immediate thought was I’m done for.
Pavel hung back while his father went to meet the visitor. Pavel’s mother brought him a cup of tea and the three of them spoke for a while in low tones before turning to look at him at the same time, as he stood nervously in the kitchen doorway. His parents looked worried and confused but the captain remained calm and collected, making Pavel in turn even more nervous than he already was.
"Pavel?" His mother asked. “What did you do?”
Pavel fidgeted, his eyes darting back and forth between the adults.
"Yes, mother?" he said, abashed. “I—“
"Captain," his mother said, turning to the officer. "I am sure you're mistaken but this is Pavel. He is our only son."
"He is intelligent, for sure, something of a genius," his father cut in, waving his hands around for emphasis. "But we know nothing of him sending forms to Starfleet and he is surely not of age, not for any form of federation commission."
The Captain pulled out a sheaf of papers from the inside of his jacket and spread them on the table. "We've taken the liberty of doing a background check, Mr. and Mrs. Chekov, and we are certain he is the only Chekov, Pavel A. in this area. His school records don't lie about his mental acuity and his ability to--”
"But, to lie?" Pavel's mother's voice said, sounding disbelieving and that alone nearly bowled Pavel with guilt. However, it seemed almost like parents weren’t angry at all. It was enough to fill Pavel with hope; he felt sorry that he had begun to assume an institute like Starfleet Academy would not want him or that his parents would not approve.
"I’m sorry, mother," Pavel said, stepping forward. "I lied about my age and sent the forms in, after seeing the recruitment memorandum. I..." he trailed off. "I wanted to..." he wrung his hands, looking at the floor.
"Oh, Pavel," his mother rose from her seat and came over to hug him. Pavel hugged her back and felt truly ashamed now, for assuming that his parents would hold him back or not want the best for him or something; for the fact that he was scared of the thought of leaving them the two of them to grow old in their hometown and lose their only son to the stars long before he had grown up.
The man in the Starfleet Uniform stood. "Son," he said, sticking out his hand for Pavel to shake. "We want to overlook the little white lie about your age on the form, seeing as you're only thirteen. But these are trying times for the Federation and your proofs have some of our top physicists reeling in shock." He paused to chuckle a little bit.
He was American, Pavel marveled, he’d never really met one before. He’d read all about America’s history and their relationship with Russia. His parents spoke English because everyone was taught Standard in school but it seemed the captain was enough of a diplomat to patiently parse their accents.
"We would like to formally invite you to further your studies at the Star City Conservatory, just outside of Moscow," he told Pavel before turning to his parents. "We welcome you there, as well. We understand that he is young but we have many very young students we hope to groom into the best scientists and then some. He would be well taken care of." He turned back to Pavel.
"I'm sorry, I don't think I've introduced myself to you. I'm Captain Christopher Pike of Starfleet."
"A captain, sir?" Pavel blurted out. "Of starships?"
Captain Pike chuckled. "Maybe," he said.
Suddenly, the path before Pavel starts to come into focus. Despite some argument, mostly based on his personal insecurity, Pavel’s parents will not leave the house they’ve built together, although they promise to accompany him to Moscow to help him settle in. Pavel sorted out the few things he needed, according to the handbook that arrived by courier a few days after the Captain had gone.
Uniforms would be provided for him; he needed toiletries, of course and a few civilian clothes, some books. The handbook warned against the usual delinquent behavior, listed all the rules and regulations and Pavel read it over and over again, feeling one chapter of his life close and another open.
Over the next few days, Pavel floated, somewhere between earth and cloud nine. He endured some talking to from his parents about how he should carry himself; some from his neighbors when the news spread that young Chekov was leaving to join the Federation. People kept stopping by, to say goodbye or just to see him. Pavel did the best he could at explaining what was happening but drew the line at showing off the red cadet uniform they had sent him.
He knew his mother had been crying at night but pointedly ignored it, helping her instead to keep busy while they packed and marked all his belongings with his name. She made him do chores, as if to make sure that Pavel never forgot what it was like to sink his fingers into the Earth and pull up vegetables or how water felt like running from a natural source. Some of it was ridiculous and rudimentary like washing dishes or doing laundry but Pavel figured that he was being taught independence and understood that it was hard to let go of their only son but that they did it anyway, which was more than most, if not all, people his age were allowed.
Pavel vowed to make them proud of him no matter what. He wouldn’t be in real danger, not for a long while yet and he wanted to do right by them until then, to stay safe because he was determined to be assigned to a starship and when that day came, there would be no guarantees.
The trip to Moscow was probably the first vacation his parents have taken since their honeymoon and certainly the first one with Pavel in a city as big as this one. For a few days, Pavel allowed himself to relax and be dragged around to see the sights, even though his mind kept wandering off, to the day when he would finally join the ranks.
On the day he would leave for the conservatory, Pavel was treated to the sight of both his parents tearing up. He’d expected his mother to but was stunned to see his father dab at his eyes with a handkerchief, even though he had tried to play it off. They covered his cheeks with kisses, commented on how smart he looked in his cadet red and hugged him until squirmed.
His father shook his hand like Pavel was a grown-up. “Pasha,” he said gruffly and pressed a card into his hand. “It is not too many credits,” his father told him. “But call us once in a while and visit once in a while, so your mother will not miss you too badly.”
Pavel’s throat tightened and he hugged them both again. For a second he wished he was about six years old again, crawling into their bed between them to hide from storms and nightmares.
When he pulled back, he was surprised again when they presented him with a long, black box, brand new and shiny, with a gold clasp. “For luck, my Pasha,” his mother told him, smiling and dry-eyed now.
"Cadet Chekov," the junior officer of the transport cleared his throat. "We are ready for you."
Pavel manfully sat by the window and avoided looking out of it until the last minute. Then he plastered his face against its surface and waved and watched his parents until they sank out of sight. He clung to the long box on his lap until curiosity got the better of him.
It was a telescope, an antique in perfect condition. Pavel was sure it worked perfectly too, his father would have made sure. In this century, when there was equipment that allowed people to go face-to-face with black holes, with supernovas, suns and moons, it was a true symbol of human dedication, beautifully obsolete. But Pavel let tears slip down his cheeks and fall on it because it was the gift of his parents, letting him know that they were watching him, even if only through something like a telescope and they understood.
There was a note tucked under it, in his father’s neat engineer handwriting:
Pasha, it said, Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.