By the time Captain Lorca is cleared for command, it's the end of Saru's duty shift. He doesn't relish the idea of visiting the mess hall at shift change -- too many people in one place are taxing for him at the best of times -- but he can't rest on an empty stomach. His plan is to acquire a boxed meal and eat in his quarters.
Except when the doors slide open in front of him, he sees Michael Burnham, sitting alone at one of the window tables, paying very little attention to the food in front of her.
Well, he'd planned to talk to her again later anyway, and this is far from the first time her very existence has altered Saru's plans.
He takes his meal to eat in the mess.
"May I join you?" Saru asks. Burnham nods, so Saru sets his Altairian seaweed salad down and pulls out the chair to sit. "I understand your intervention with the tardigrade went well."
"Tilly's writing the full report now. But our scans indicated a massive burst of mycelial activity at the same time as the tardigrade disappeared. I like to think it went home," Michael says. There's a small smile on her face, the first one he's seen from her since she came here.
"As is its right," he says. "You've done a great service today."
"And so have you, Commander," Burnham responds. "I heard how you found the shuttle with Lorca on it. A human might not have recognized the flight pattern in time."
And that is something Saru is proud of, so he tilts his head in acknowledgement, but turns his attention on the stars outside.
"Permission to speak freely, Commander?" Burnham asks.
They're both off duty, so the question isn't strictly necessary. Perhaps Burnham is asking because of the inversion of their roles on Discovery. Perhaps it's a sign of respect. Saru isn't sure. Either way, he is grateful. "Granted," he says.
"You seem more troubled than relieved."
As much as Saru wants to remain professionally detached from Burnham, the question most troubling him is perhaps one only she can answer. "As acting captain, I gave orders that I knew would cause direct harm to a sentient being, the only known member of its species. I am a first contact specialist. I should have been the one advocating for the tardigrade, not the one denying its most basic rights. But as the captain, I had to give those orders if any of us were to live. How can any captain make these choices so often?"
He sees Burnham's reflection in the window turn somber once again. "I asked Captain Georgiou that question six months after joining the Shenzhou. It was after the altercation we had with the scavengers in the Deneva system."
Saru searches his memory. "The incident on the derelict ship."
"I was in charge of our boarding party, and when I sent Ensigns Capa and Tanaka to investigate the strange readings in the ship's bowels, I knew I was putting them at risk. I didn't know I was sending them to their deaths."
"The scavengers had masked their life signs. You had no way of knowing they were there."
"Starfleet's incident review agreed with your assessment. But I still found myself preoccupied with guilt. Captain Georgiou noticed. She told me that I should feel responsible for what had happened, because I'd been in command. And then she told me that there was a reason she'd chosen the Shenzhou's motto."
"'All existing things are really one'," Saru replies, in a near whisper.
"She told me that this was the first of many choices I would make that would harm others, and that making those choices would in turn harm me. Such is the nature of command. Since I had made the best decision available to me at the time, she said, I should let go of my guilt. So... what better decision could you have made?"
Saru opens his mouth, but realizes he has no reply to give.
Burnham turns toward Saru. "You're going to make a great captain someday," she says, and Saru believes she's entirely sincere.
When Saru returns to his quarters, he opens the case Burnham had given him and runs his fingers over the battered surface of the telescope. Some of the tarnish had been there before, the byproduct of generations of use. Most of the damage, however, is a result of the beating it took at the Binary Stars. There are minuscule pockmarks on the casing, and a small crack bisects the lens. The tripod is missing a leg. It certainly won't be the same as it was before.
But it can be made whole again. It can be restored to its purpose.
Perhaps, for now, that will suffice.